The Latin phrase, ad orientem, literally means, “toward the east,” or “toward God.” This is in contrast to celebrating the Mass versus populum; that is, “toward the people.”
The key to understanding an ad orientem Mass is that the priest celebrant, quite simply, faces those to whom he is speaking. If the prayer is directed to the people, he faces versus populum, or “toward the people.” If the prayer is directed towards God, he faces ad orientum, “to the East”, or “to God.” He is not turning his back on the people to exclude them. Rather, as a Christian community, all are facing ad orientem waiting in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Celebrating Mass ad orientem is one of the most ancient and most consistent practices in the life of the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, “Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom; praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” We could even say that it goes back to the Old Testament.
In Masses celebrated ad orientem, the priest stands at the fore of the people and faces the Heavenly Father to offer to Him the sacrifice of His Son for the remission of sins on behalf of the people. It makes the priest in some way “disappear” and everyone’s gaze is toward the Father alone. The priest and faithful become united so that, “what we have is a cosmic orientation…a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach of the return of Christ.”
In this orientation, we are reminded that the Mass is not first and foremost about us, but rather about God and giving Him glory – about worshiping Him as He desires in the Mass. Again, Pope Benedict, teaches that “in all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking toward God. We stand before God – He speaks to us and we speak to Him.”
Some may ask, “But wasn’t this Mass disallowed by the Second Vatican Council?” It was not. In fact, the Roman Missal (the large book on the altar at every Mass that the priest looks to for directions) actually instructs the priest at different moments to, “turn and face the people.” So, the Church is taking for granted that the priest is celebrating the Mass ad orientem as the norm!
If you haven’t experienced the celebration of Mass ad orientem, you might consider coming to the Fourth Tuesday of every month 6:30pm Mass (unless stated otherwise). I believe it may bring you to a deeper understanding of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And just to be clear, this Mass is totally voluntary and is not a precursor to how all Masses will be celebrated here at St. Mark. In a world which strips away all but the tangible, the provable, we are still drawn to mystery. Come, enter more deeply into the Mystery of God.