Thursday, May 26th, 2022

‘Ascendit ad Orientem’: A Sermon for the Ascension

Sing to the Lord, who ascended the highest heavens to the East, alleluia” (Psalm 67).

That is today’s Communion antiphon and there is something here for us to investigate. As you know, the phrase ad orientem is used in liturgical conversations when we speak about where the priest stands during Mass. As you know, when he stands facing the altar cross and tabernacle, in the same direction as the people, they call this ad orientem, “toward the East.” When he stands facing the congregation in opposition to them, they call this versus populum. 

By no means are we going to rehearse liturgical history right now. But there is a connection to be made between the way the priest faces at Mass and the mystery which you and I are celebrating at the moment.

Christ ascends to the Father because He is a priest; because His intercessory and saving mission is complete. He ascends, and is thereby hidden—hidden, but not absent. Christ goes to the Father so that He can be present to the entire Church at once. And where is this hidden but real presence now? The Sacraments: outward signs which communicate invisible grace. So the priesthood of Christ continues in a visible manner wherever our Sacraments are celebrated; and especially where the Holy Mass is offered. The Ascension initiates this movement and makes it possible.  

Which brings us to the way the priest faces at Holy Mass. Historically and theologically, there are many reasons for the Church’s traditional practice; but a mystical reason is given to us today. Psalm 67 tells us that Christ ascended ad orientem, which is where we all look during Mass. This parish church is built on an east-west axis, as many old churches are. But why toward the east? In a word, because it is the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of Our Lord’s victorious Resurrection.

Thus, when the priest and people face the same direction, a certain sacred anonymity falls over the priest. When he is performing the most sacred actions of the Mass, his face is hidden. The very height and contours of his body are hidden beneath sacred vestments. You see no priest in particular, because in some manner you see every priest. Ultimately, you see the one Priest, Jesus Christ.  

So yes, during the administration of the Sacraments and especially the Mass, you’re meant to have a momentary holy amnesia about the priest. You’re to forget who exactly that man is—because Christ is there, and that is all that we need to know. The everlasting priesthood of Christ is revealing itself visibly, even in the midst of our many imperfections. The imperfections are ours; the grace of the priesthood is His.

It is similar from the perspective of the priest. He is meant to be so fixed on the sacrifice, that he is supposed to forget he is on earth. For he has undergone a kind of ascension of his own. To be sure, he can never forget the people for whom he is offering the Mass––which is why there are two Mementos, one for the living and one for the dead, in which the Church forces him to recall names and faces. But these two moments done, he returns to the celestial places. And all of it is true whether he feels that it is or not. But the point must be well understood: the priest never turns his back on the people; but he is turned entirely toward God.  

By way of an aside, this mystical exposition of the question also explains the celibacy of the priest. The priest renounces marriage, not for merely practical reasons, but because of his very identity and mission. The prophet Isaias gives us the image of God’s watchmen on the walls of the holy city:

Upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, I have appointed watchmen all the day, and all the night, they shall never hold their peace. You that are mindful of the Lord, hold not your peace.

(Isaiah 62, 6)

The priest is a man who is busy watching the walls of the world, watching the East where Christ ascended. The Master has gone that way with an offering, and the priest must follow as a man entirely consumed with divine things.  

In the end, all of this is possible and real because of the Ascension. Like the Communion antiphon says, Catholics are a people looking East: “Sing to the Lord, who ascended the highest heavens to the East, alleluia!”

{Art Credit: Sunrise in Feodosia (1855), Ivan Aivazovsky.}

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