Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stravinskas on Ad Orientem

The NLM blog recently posted a homily sent to them by Fr. Peter Stravinskas from a recent retreat he gave in Ohio. The homily concerned the subject of worship ad orientem.
The Season of Advent has a two-fold emphasis which many, many people do not seem to either remember or ever have known. And it’s on two comings of Christ: the first on His coming into time as the Judge of the world; His second, which most people associate with Advent exclusively, is His coming in history as the Babe of Bethlehem. But actually, until December 17, it is His final or second coming that the Church would have us focus all our attention on. And, the themes that the Church brings to our attention during this time period are those to do with light - the Light that is coming into the world. You see that in all of today’s readings as a matter of fact.

The early Christians believed that Jesus would come again during the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, and that He would come to them out of the east. And so, whenever possible churches were constructed so that they faced east.

When you came into the Chapel this morning, if you were somewhat awake, you may have noticed that there is a slightly different arrangement of the sanctuary. The different arrangement is to suggest a different focus.

In theological or liturgical language, we call this liturgical orientation, the liturgy celebrated facing east; which cannot always be a geographical east. But it does mean that priest and people face Christ, the coming Dawn, together, who’s coming to them out of the east.

And there are some very practical implications to all of this: there is much less attention on the priest and much more attention on Christ. John the Baptist, the particular voice and figure par excellence for the Advent Season, said, “He [Christ] must increase, I must decrease.” And so, there is less of a personality cult centered on the priest, there is less distraction for the priest who ought to be looking at God not the congregation and less distraction for people - who are not diverted by some of the idiosyncrasies of priests.

And let me then offer a few clarifications.

First, there is nothing in the Second Vatican Council that ever once called for the turning around of altars, just as nothing in Vatican II called for getting rid of Latin in the Liturgy, nor did they ever envision things like communion in the hand, or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion or female servers. All of that is something that happened many, many years after the Council, and that the Council Fathers themselves would have been quite shocked to discover ever happened.

Secondly, the current or reformed Roman Missal, even in English as a matter of fact, presumes that the priest is not facing the congregation, and, therefore, the rubrics (the directives for the celebration of the Liturgy) consistently say things to the priest like, “The priest now turns faces the people and says, ‘The Lord be with you.’”

Thirdly, for the parts of the Mass that are directed to the people, the priest continues to face the people, and so, the Liturgy of the Word. It makes no sense for me to read the Gospel facing the wall or to preach in that direction. (Although, sometimes you get the impression you might get as much of a reaction.)

Fourth, for years, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, wrote repeatedly about the importance of returning the former practice of facing east. Why? To restore a healthy sense of the sacred, the transcendent. So that this is not perceived as a social hour or “Entertainment Tonight”, but the Church’s worship of the triune God.

Fifthly, many priests (especially younger ones interestingly enough) are taking the former Cardinal’s, now present Pope’s, admonition to heart. Last week, I was in Greenville, South Carolina, and all the Masses in that parish have been celebrated ad orientem, as we say, facing east for a full year now. Just Wednesday, I visited Holy Family Church in Columbus, where since the beginning of Advent, three of the four Sunday Masses are now celebrated facing east.

As I indicated the other day, Advent is a time of new beginnings. And so, this is a good time for us to make this act of restoration here at the Monastery and, appropriately, also during the nuns’ annual retreat. Now, this may take a bit of readjustment for some of you, but I think you’ll find great spiritual benefit in reasonably short order.

You may not realize it, but all religions have used geography as a theological reference point. You know, I’m sure, that Muslims turn to face Mecca, no matter where they are. When they go to pray, they turn to face Mecca. Orthodox Jews, to this very day, turn to face Jerusalem. Each day in the celebration of Lauds (or Morning Prayer) the Church prays the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zechariah, which he recited as he reacted to the birth of his newborn son, John the Baptist. In that canticle Zechariah prophesies, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the Dawn from on high shall break upon us. We know that the dawn breaks in the east; that Dawn, that rising Sun shall appear on this altar in but a few minutes. And so, let us, you and I, priest and people, face east together, prepared to meet the One who is coming into the world as the Light of the world.
As I have mentioned on this blog several times, I hope to see the mass celebrated ad orientem more often in the future. I very much long for the Church to return to this liturgical orientation. I think that this will go a long way to help bring about the liturgical reform actually called for by the Second Vatican Council.

It seems it is beginning to catch on. Of course, it has to be paired with good liturgical catechesis, as Fr. Stravinskas is doing here and as Pope Benedict XVI has suggested before.

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