Ad Orientem

Lace Pattern

What does it mean to say Mass "ad orientem"?
Ad orientem is Latin for "toward the East." From the people's perspective, it can look like the priest has his back to them. But when Mass is said this way, it means that the priest and the people face the same direction, toward the Lord. Today, even if a church isn't built oriented to the East, every Mass is said toward "liturgical East," that is toward the Lord, by putting a crucifix on the altar for all to see. 

At Christianity's beginning and for nearly 2000 years, Mass was said with everyone facing east as a sign of waiting for Jesus' return. Historically, Christian symbolism has always pointed to the east as a reminder of the Second Coming. In man’s original perfection, God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which He planted “in the East” (Gen 2:8). Ezekiel prophesies the coming of the Messiah saying “the glory of the God of Israel came from the east… and the earth shone with his glory” (Ez 43:2). When Jesus left the Mount of Olives to begin his Passion, he entered the city through the East Gate, which Jewish Tradition still holds the Messiah will do when he comes. Christ’s Resurrection in the early morning hours recalls the rising of the sun. And in promising to return, Jesus says, “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt 24:27). ​And so, Christians have always looked to the East as a physical reminder of His Coming.

Why is this valuable?
The special emphasis of Mass ad orientem is that it tangibly demonstrates the priest is in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). The prayers of Mass are directed to God the Father though God the Son—in union with God the Holy Spirit—but always to God the Father specifically through Jesus Christ. Ad orientem physically shows that the priest, being another Christ, is offering the Mass to the Father, on behalf of the people. Rather than excluding the people by turning his back on them, the priest is inviting and including them in this offering to God the Father. Additionally, it shows the church is united with the priest leading the way. Much like a good general in battle or a pilot flying a plane, the priest faces everyone's destination and shows how to reach it. And it also shows the corporate nature of prayer as we face God in unity. These mysteries are made tangible in how we stand. Many parts of the Mass are tangible: the bells draw attention to mystical moments, incense draws eyes to heaven, kneeling reminds all of their humble state before the Master of the Universe, etc. In the same way, ad orientem makes certain spiritual realities concrete; like the other examples, it helps all enter the Mystery of our Triune God.  

Is this moving the church backwards into the past?
Some feel like Mass said ad orientem is forcing the parish back into old ways that had been intentionally left behind. They might be surprised to learn the Mass rubrics do not assume the priest is facing the people but rather that he is facing the Lord with them, nor did the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s request the switch to versus populumAd orientem is still the default and customary way to celebrate Mass. For those who fear ad orientem is unnecessarily clinging to the past, it is helpful to note that many parts of the Mass we're accustomed to are equally ancient. Despite the long march of centuries, the structure of the Mass is nearly unchanged from the time of the early Christians. Catholics still sing Alleluia and Amen without translating them from ancient Hebrew. During Lent, it's common to pray Kyrie, eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord have mercy) in the original Greek or the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world...) in Latin. Priests still vest in the robes of times long ago. Like these examples, celebrating the Mass ad orientem preserves the rich and ancient tradition that runs in a straight line all the way back to Jesus and the Apostles. Everyone has their own preferences when praying (prayer is meant to be a personal conversation with God, after all). Yet, when we encounter forms of Catholic prayer that are new or foreign to us, we must let the Lord lead the way in drawing us into a deeper relationship with Him. No matter what, let us ask the Lord to reveal more and more of the vastness of His glory in every Mass we attend.