The Bible, Vatican II, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal Support Ad Orientem Worship. There is no reason Ad Orientem should be a divisive topic.
The Biblical Explanation of Ad Orientem Worship
Have you ever been so moved by the Mass that you were compelled to utter the words, “My Lord, and My God”?
This doesn’t happen often to me but, I have. It was at an Ad Orientem, Novus Ordo Mass at Christmas.
I’ll never forget it.
If this has ever happened to you, you were probably at a Mass that was entirely focused on the presence of God in the Holy Eucharist.
Arguments over Ad Orientem and Versus Populum, or Facing East and Towards the People bubble up periodically, but it’s rare you will hear a robust discussion about what it is and why it’s important.
Most of the issues stem from the confusing implementation of the Vatican II Document Sacrosanctum Concilium and its encouragement of active participation from the laity during Mass.
Ad Orientem worship is simply all about the priest orienting the sacrifice of the Mass toward Jesus Christ in the re-presentation of the Crucifixion, facing the Lord.
This is how Catholics have always worshipped the Lord and according to Sacrosanctum Concilium and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, should continue to worship God.
The proper posture and orientation of the Mass is entirely wrapped up in the important question of what is the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in light of the Old Covenant?
The Purpose of Holy Sacrifice in Light of Ancient Jewish Tradition
In order to worship God, with full reverence, in the way He designed us to worship Him, He instructed the ancient Jewish people how to do it properly in Exodus 12. The sacrificing of the Lamb for the Passover, “will be a day of remembrance for you, which future generations will celebrate.”
Saint Paul clearly shows the link between the Old Testament sacrificial instructions and the New Testament Covenant of Jesus Christ in Hebrews 9 1-14.
Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold…
Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship, but into the second, only the high priest enters once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance….
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
This explains that the priest is called by God to offer sacrifices in a specific way. In ancient Jewish Old Testament tradition, the priests offered sacrifices in accordance with God’s direction as described in Exodus, leading the sacrifice and the people in worship. In the New Testament, Catholic priests do the same thing.
This is essential to understanding Ad Orientem worship and the sacrifice of the Mass.
God initiated the Passover sacrifice of the spotless lamb for the Jews, which spared the first-born sons of the Jews. Then God led the Jews out of Egypt and bondage to the Promised Land.
At the Mass, Catholics for over a thousand years faced east, toward Jerusalem, and toward the Lord. Catholics faced Jerusalem, which is translated (The City of Peace) because the earthly City of Peace represents the Heavenly City of Peace and God resides in the Heavenly Jerusalem. (The Eternal Promised Land).
The Catholic priest, Ad Orientem, (Facing East toward Jerusalem) in persona Christi (the High Priest Jesus Christ) during Mass, in the re-presentation of the sacrifice of the crucifixion, leads us of out of our earthly bondage of sin and death to the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Everything harkens back to God’s conventual promises. The Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant. The ancient Jewish sacrifice of the lamb is fulfilled in the New Covenant sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
This is why the Catholic Priest should be facing toward Jerusalem or toward the Lord. The Mass is not about the community gathering for a meal as much as is about the priest leading us in sacrificial worship toward the Heavenly Jerusalem to God.
Therefore, the purpose of sacrifice in ancient Jewish tradition, was the same then as it is for us today: to have a priest, in Persona Christi, offer God the very best we have, the spotless Lamb of God, for atonement for our sins.
Then, after the re-presentation of the crucifixion, the bloodless sacrifice on the altar, priest and the laity, all facing the Lord, consume the sacrifice together, with the priest leading the way moving us closer in the direction of God.
Only a priest can offer this sacrifice and lead us in properly oriented worship toward the Promised Land and the Lord.
Saint Paul describes this in Hebrews 5 1-10.
“For every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins;… and because of it he is obligated to offer sacrifices for sins, as for the people, so also for himself. 4 And no one takes the honor to himself, but receives it when he is called by God, even as Aaron was.
When the priest faces us, or at least faces away from the Lord, it disorients the Mass and inverts it. The priest, in his posture, no longer leads the laity toward God. It orients the sacrifice and offering toward the creature instead of the Creator.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM)
Some people will say that Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal do not allow for Ad Orientem worship because it excludes the laity from actively participating and praying the Mass.
This is simply not true. While it does say that it is desirable to face the people whenever possible, it does not forbid the priest from facing the Lord in any part of the Mass. In fact, it is clear that the intention was that during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest was to face Ad Orientem.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal - Movements and Posture
42. The gestures and posture of the priest, the deacon, and the ministers, as well as those of the people, ought to contribute to making the entire celebration resplendent with beauty and noble simplicity, so that the true and full meaning of the different parts of the celebration is evident and that the participation of all is fostered…A common posture, to be observed by all participants, is a sign of the unity of the members of the Christian community gathered for the sacred Liturgy: it both expresses and fosters the intention and spiritual attitude of the participants. (GIRM)
To be in union and to have a common posture means that everyone, including the priest is in union facing the Lord in the same direction.
Additionally, for The Eucharistic Prayer, the priest is to address God the Father, but addresses God facing away from Him? It is unusual to address anyone while not facing them, but instead facing others,
The Eucharistic Prayer
78. Now the center and summit of the entire celebration begins: namely, the Eucharistic Prayer… The priest invites the people to lift up their hearts to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving; he unites the congregation with himself in the prayer that he addresses in the name of the entire community to God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, the meaning of the Prayer is that the entire congregation of the faithful should join itself with Christ in confessing the great deeds of God and in the offering of Sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayer demands that all listen to it with reverence and in silence. (GIRM)
Finally, there are several examples in the General Instruction of the Roman Rite that direct the priest to face the congregation. But why tell him to face the people if he should already be facing them? This is because the assumption was that, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest would be facing East toward Jerusalem and the toward the Lord. Emphasis is mine.
146. Upon returning to the middle of the altar, the priest, facing the people and extending and then joining his hands, invites the people to pray, saying, Orate, fratres (Pray, brethren)…
154…After this prayer is concluded, extending and then joining his hands, he gives the greeting of peace while facing the people and saying, Pax Domini sit simper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always)…
157...When the prayer is concluded, the priest genuflects, takes the host consecrated in the same Mass, and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says, Ecce Agnus Dei (This is the Lamb of God). (GIRM)
Why keep telling and reminding the priest over and over again to face the people if he should already be facing them? It is because he’s not supposed to be facing the people during entire Liturgy of the Eucharist. He is supposed to be facing Ad Orientem.
To conclude, Mass should always be offered Ad Orientem to some degree and at the very least during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If the Holy sacrifice of the Mass is to be offered to God in accordance with Ancient Jewish tradition, the Old Covenant, ancient Catholic tradition, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, then it must be encouraged that Mass be offered Ad Orientem.
Finally, with so many Catholics who do not even believe in the Real Presence, it’s more important than ever that the Mass reflect the reality of what is transpiring in front of us. This means reverently offering the Mass in the light of tradition. The phrase “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” has been making a comeback recently and the truth it speaks aligns perfectly with the reason Ad Orientem is so important. “As we pray, so we believe”.
For additional resources check out this great letter from Bishop James S. Wall of the Diocese of Gallup. Turning Towards God: Celebrating the Mass Ad Orientem.
Or From Ascension Press – The Case for Ad Orientem
Plus, for a Reverent, Ad Orientem Mass near you, check out our Map!
General Instruction of the Roman Missal. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2020, from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_c...