What happens at Mass? Sadly – and I truly, honestly, and wholeheartedly mean sadly – many talk about the Mass in disparaging terms. What do I mean? Well there is a tendency to speak as if anything that came before the year 1970 was wrong. That after the Second Vatican Council a new Church was literally sung into being. I hear people say things like: “The priest had his back to us.” Is that true?! We should all be shocked and scandalized by such a thing….if it were true. Did the priest have his back to the people? Or sometimes I hear: “Jesus would never turn his back on us, why would the priest turn his back on us?” It is a curious thing because until about 1967 no one ever referred to the ancient ‘ad orientem’ posture as “the priest turning his back to us.” History didn’t begin in 1970 and so we have A LOT of historical documentation written about the Mass before 1970. In none of those is it ever said: “the priest turns his back on us.”
In fact the ancient posture called ‘ad orientem’ has its roots not only in the ancient Christian faith of the 12 Apostles, it goes back to the Jewish temple, but it even goes back further to Moses….and doesn’t begin with Moses, but goes back even further to our Father in the Faith: Abraham! So what does ad orientem mean? It means “towards the East,” or towards the rising sun. My friends, the Mass is not about a communal gathering of fellowship. It isn’t about the priest turning his back or not turning his back. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is about the priest making an offering. I am unable to offer anything of worth to God on my own. It is Jesus Christ who makes Himself present through the working of the Holy Spirit, transforming bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. And the priest offers Jesus Christ to God the Father. The Mass is a Sacrifice. It is an unbloody re-presentation of the one offering of Jesus Christ to His eternal Father for the life of the world. That is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
But what about the Last Supper?! Our Lord must’ve celebrated that at a round table in the back dining room of an Applebee’s restaurant, right?!?! No. The Last Supper looked like it is depicted in the high altar at St. Mary. Our Lord and His Apostles sat on the same side of the table. A Jewish ceremonial table for the Passover was one-sided because the Last Supper was not a meal like at a restaurant. The Last Supper is a re-living of the memory of the Exodus where the people Israel went out to meet the Lord and to seek The Promised Land. “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand” (Exodus 12:11). Why did the Christian Church from day one celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientem, with the priest facing the rising sun and not the people? He did so because the priest is the New Moses leading the people from the modern Egypt of sin towards The Promised Land. The symbolism of the Mass is that we are on a journey going out to meet the Lord with the priest as Moses. We moderns want to reinvent everything, but it is good to pay heed to the words of the Lord: “Let the wicked forsake their way, and sinners their thoughts; Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:7-8). Let us purify our vocabulary of Holy Things and have REAL knowledge before we speak of the things of the Lord! -Fr. W.