Sacred Signs and Symbols: Ad Orientem

By Patrick Angiolillo

I had the opportunity to attend a Novus Ordo Latin Mass celebrated ad orientem for the first time two years ago. It was my first experience of both Latin in the Mass and of the priest facing East, and in this case facing the altar, for the duration of the liturgy.

This experience has in part fueled my academic investigations of ancient Jewish and Christian liturgical texts. Although my intention in my research has been to draw an ever-clearer picture of ancient worship-in-practice, my studies connect to the modern religious experience, and can shed light on why it is we do what we do when we perform certain ritual practices in our religious ceremonies. This includes the ad orientem Mass.

Let me begin in Jerusalem, a place where many great stories begin. The Temple in Jerusalem lies not only at the heart of the ancient city, but at the heart of the ancient Jewish faith as well. Historically, Jews have regarded the Temple as the place where God chose to reside: “the place (המקום) that YHWH your God will choose from all your tribes as a dwelling place to put his name there” (Deut 12:5; cf. ||’s). God’s shekinah, or divine presence, is physically manifest in the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was reserved.

The centrality of both the institution and sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple cult was the impetus for directional prayer in ancient Judaism. Facing the Jerusalem Temple, then, was the most appropriate way (if not the only effective means by which) to pray to the God of Israel.

One of the most important examples of this rule comes from King Solomon (the man who built the temple!), when he prays at the dedication of the First Temple, asking God to hear the prayers of the people who pray toward “the place” (המקום), that is, the “house” (הבית), or temple, which Solomon has built for God (see 1 Kgs 8:46–49). Other examples abound: in Dan 6:10[11], Daniel kneels in the direction of Jerusalem to pray his prayer of thanksgiving; in Jonah 2:4, the prophet, although “cast away from before your eyes,” prays in the direction of “your holy Temple” (אל־היכל קדשך); and in 1 Esd 4:58, a young man in the court of King Darius of Persia “lifted his face toward heaven in the direction of Jerusalem and praised the King of heaven.”

Indeed, the practice of facing the Temple continued into the rabbinic period. Both m. Ber 4.5 and b. Ber 30a advance the claim that wherever an individual may be, he should face the Jerusalem Temple when praying. Indeed, these passages detail the fact that if the individual is within the city, he should face the sanctuary in particular, but if the individual is outside the city, or even outside Israel, he should, as best he can, face toward the holy place.

This notion of directional prayer, then, is an ancient, and indeed, an important one.

In our contemporary Catholic liturgy, we face the altar, and the priest, behind the altar, faces the people (versus populum). This structure, a product of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reform (although not a direct result of conciliar decision), neglects an integral dimension of communal prayer—orientation toward the Lord.

The priest, as the one mediating the sacrifice of Christ, as the conduit between the layman and the eternal Godhead, leads the people of God in their marshalling before the Lord. This symbolism is lost on a congregation gathered before a priest celebrating versus populum.

Pope Benedict XVI devotes a chapter of his Spirit of the Liturgy—which gives an obvious nod to Guardini’s little book of the same name—to the question of communal orientation in the liturgy of the Church. He emphatically argues for prayer ad orientem, and bases his logic firmly in the ancient practices of both the Jewish people and the members of the earliest Church. And indeed the rationale for these people is just the same for Benedict. A turning toward the East, just as a turning toward Jerusalem, is in fact a turning toward the Lord.

Benedict notes, but does not probe, the problem of interpreting the Mass as either a sacrifice or a meal.* But he makes clear that the worship of the Mass—which celebrates the new reality Christ creates in the Christ Event (i.e., in his sacrifice, death, and resurrection)—is not just eating together: this “new and all-encompassing form of worship could not be derived simply from the meal but had to be defined through the interconnection of Temple and synagogue, Word and sacrament, cosmos and history” (p. 79). Indeed, the Mass is something much greater than the mundane act of breaking bread and recalling fondly the days when the Lord walked among us.

Benedict then decries the potential for falling into a self-enclosed and homocentric perspective on the Eucharist when celebrating the Mass versus populum. That is to say, “[l]ess and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here…” (p. 80). No longer are the people together, led by the priest, turning toward the Lord. Versus populum necessarily imposes the interpretation that what happens at the Mass is a humanly generated event, dependent on human action, when in fact the real work of salvation, in the Mass as in history, is dependent wholly and unequivocally on the Lord.

When we celebrate ad orientem, we, the pilgrim People of God, as Benedict likes to say, “set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us” (p. 80) in the East, in the rising of the Sun. The communal worship of the Mass is a cosmic activity, in which the divine breaks in on the mundane, in which signs and symbols not only represent but actually possess the power of new and supernatural realities. Derived from the ritual practices of our ancient Jewish brothers and sisters, indeed from the Temple practices Jesus himself might have known, the practice of facing East is a physical sign of an alternate reality. It is both a reminder that we must turn toward the Lord and in fact a real turning toward the Lord. When we pray at Mass ad orientem we are praying toward “the place” (המקום) from which the Lord will come, we are turning toward the eschatological future, we are turning toward Christ.

To disregard this symbolism is, it seems to me, a grave omission. Perhaps inspired by the actions of the great King Solomon, or of the prophet Jonah, or of our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we will be reminded of the great symbolism there is—indeed of the great supernatural power there is—in turning to face East when we celebrate the holy sacrifice of the Mass. This was the case for me, at least, and maybe it will be the case for others as well.


*Paul Bradshaw, a professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame and a priest-vicar of Westminster Abbey, offers a succinct but thorough investigation into this question in his Reconstructing Early Christian Worship. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to pursue deeper research into this question, and indeed, into the question of what were the practices and rituals of the earliest Church.

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