Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas and the Calendar

It appears that Roma locuta est beat me to the post, but I have been wanting to write about why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th . . .



Christmas and the Calendar
Accurate or not, in the calendar, the celebration of Jesus' birthday comes at a very poignant time of year. We don't know when Jesus' birthday actually was, nonetheless the day on which we celebrate the anniversary of His birth is significant for many reasons.


The December Debacle
A Mithraic "tauroctony"--Mithras killing a sacred bull
This is the main icon in a Mithraic temple.
There are multiple reasons historians propose as to why December 25th was chosen as the date on which we celebrate Christmas. Probably the most commonly heard argument is that the Church “Christianized” a pagan celebration. At that time of the year, the Mithras Cult celebrated the Birth of the Undying Sun. It happens just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year (December 21st); beyond that, the days start getting longer again. The ancients obviously weren't as accurate with their observations of the heavens as our contemporary equipment is, so we can easily forgive them for being 4 days off. The Christians may very well have seen something good in this celebration of the Undying Sun. The sun, which begins to increase (in the Northern Hemisphere) after this time, can be seen as a metaphor for Christ bringing light into the darkness. In addition, the idea of the “undying sun” was a common Christian symbol for Jesus, the “undying Son” (or, rather, He who conquered death). St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Who is indeed so unconquered as Our Lord? If they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He [Jesus] is the Sun of Justice." (Of Solstices and the Equinox, 386 AD) The Church is never opposed to finding what is good in other religions, pointing out how that good is a “preparation for the Gospel” (CCC 843), separating it from what is not good, and elevating it to the use of honoring God.

Not only was this idea related to the extra light after the solstice, but also to every sunrise. In early Christianity, the worshippers turned from their Jewish gaze, which was toward the temple. (All synagogues faced where the temple was in Jerusalem and Jews would point themselves toward the temple when they prayed.) The Christians, recognizing that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross ended the need for the temple sacrifice, re-oriented their prayer direction. They faced east both to greet the metaphor of the rising sun/Son and to look for His return from the east. This is evidently seen in older liturgies where the priest faces the same direction as the people and most older churches are built so that all the worshippers face east. 
The difficulty of arguing that Christmas was set on December 25th to Christianize a pagan holiday is that many suggest the motive would have been an attempt to appease the pagan converts who were used to celebrating at this time of the year--as if Christianity would seem more attractive if people were able to still have a celebration at this time of year. Speculation on the attractiveness of merely celebrating a timely festival aside, the more serious challenge to dating Christmas based on the Mithras festival comes when we realize that the Mithras cult was a geographically small group. It wouldn’t make sense to Christianize a holiday of a local group to appease the whole of Christianity's pagan converts. Perhaps it was an influence on the decision, but I don’t think it was by any means the main reason.
The second reason posited for December 25th is that, on that date in the year 325 AD, the Council of Nicea promulgated the doctrine of the Homouusis--the statement that Jesus, the Son, is consubstantial, “one in being,” with the Father, meaning that He is everything that the Father is, except the Father. The anniversary of this date may have had some influence over setting the date for the celebration of Christmas. Although, if the celebration of Christmas goes back even farther than 325 AD (as some historians believe), then the influence might just as possibly have gone the other way.

The third reason for the selection of December 25th requires us to look into Jewish folklore. I'm still trying to find a solid source for this, but I've been told that there was a tradition in the Jewish culture that great prophets were conceived and would eventually die on the same day of the year. Jesus died on what was, in the Jewish calendar, the 14th of Nisan (our March 25th). On March 25th, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation (the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, announcing the good news that she will bear God in her womb). At the Annunciation, Mary’s Fiat (yes, acceptance, "Be it done unto me according to your word") was her response to God. She was open to the Holy Spirit and through that openness, the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in her womb. March 25th is the day we celebrate Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb. Nine months to the day after March 25th (enough time for a woman to carry a baby to term), we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. These aren’t necessarily the exact dates on which these historic events happened, but for purposes of selecting a day to celebrate Christmas and the Annunciation, the Church may have been influenced by it's Jewish roots and set the date of Christmas based on the tradition of Jewish lore.
We celebrate Mary’s conception and birth in the same way. Mary was conceived immaculately (without original sin), in her mother’s (St. Anne’s) womb. We celebrate the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. We celebrate Mary’s birthday nine months later on September 8th.
We also remember that, at the time of the Annunciation, Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant (with John the Baptist in her womb) and Mary rushed off to Judea to help Elizabeth for the last 3 months of gestation. Three months after the Annunciation, we celebrate the Solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist (June 24th). This is interesting because whereas Jesus' birthday marks the change from shortening days to lengthening, John’s birthday (in contrast to Jesus’) comes as the days begin to get shorter--this follows in line with his quote: “He must increase; I must decrease.” [John 3:30] After Jesus’ birthday, the days increase. After John’s birthday, the days decrease. Again, these may not be the exact dates on which the historic events took place, but their placement in the calendar is poignant for celebration and for teaching the faithful.
Regardless of the reason for December 25th, the timing is also interesting. Jesus’ birthday comes at the very end of the calendar year. This echoes the idea that all of ancient history (BC) anticipated His coming and all of contemporary history (AD) looks forward to His Second Coming at the end of time. Consider the verse in Hark the Herald Angels Sing: “Late in time behold Him come.” Also, if you go to the day Mass on Christmas, you would hear Paul’s words to the Hebrews (1:2) “in these last days, [God] has spoken to us through the Son.” The final preparations of the calendar year are summarized in the season of Advent, waiting for the celebration of the Lord’s coming. Christmas, however, doesn’t end on Christmas Day. It is so large of a celebration that it gets spread over an octave (8 days), taking up the rest of the year and spilling over to the first day of the next year, after which, the celebration continues in the season of Christmas, which lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Christmas is, then, the culmination of the calendar year, bridging us into the next year to celebrate the cycle all over again--just as Christ bridges the gap between this life and the next.


Taking it up an Octave

Octaves are interesting celebrations in the Church. They extended the celebration of a particularly Holy day into 8 days. The Octave of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and ends eight days later (inclusively) on January 1st, the Solemnity (and Holy Day of Obligation) of Mary, the Mother of God (defined by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD). Each day in that octave is celebrated as Christmas Day all over again. If we pay attention to the prayers at Mass on those days, we will notice the theme of Christmas in a present tense as opposed to a past tense. When praying the Liturgy of the Hours on those days, one reuses the Hymns, Antiphons, Psalms, and Canticles from Christmas Day.

The Christmas Octave is interesting in another notable way. If we celebrate Jesus’ birth on the first day, then, on the 8th day, we also recognize the significance of His circumcision. All Jewish boys were circumcised at 8 days old. This was the manner of entering them into God's covenant. This made them members of God’s family. Of course, for Jesus, the eternal Son of God, circumcision as entrance into God’s family would seem unnecessary. However, circumcision was the law, and Jesus, who was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4) and obedient to both the law and his family, was a model Jew. Mary and Joseph had Him circumcised. With this act, we can also see Jesus’ flesh being offered to God--the flesh, which He received from Mary, his Mother. We begin the New Year, on the 8th day after the celebration of Jesus’ birth. We begin the New Year with both the celebration of Mary’s Motherhood of God and, with it (in a way), we celebrate Jesus’ circumcision.

There used to be more octaves in the year, but currently the only other octave that is officially celebrated is the Easter octave, during which every day is a Solemnity (a high feast day, but not a holy day of obligation). Easter is always a Sunday and the end of the octave is now Divine Mercy Sunday (linking the Resurrection to God’s Mercy). In a certain way, every Sunday is an extended octave of Easter. In honor of Jesus' Resurrection, we come together every Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Day--a continual octave of Easter.

Although not an official octave, we celebrate the Assumption of Mary (body and soul) into the glory of Heaven on August 15th, and eight days later (inclusively), we celebrate the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.

My “Truelove” Gave to Me...

The Christmas Season extends beyond the octave (forwards, not backwards, as our retail society might have you believe). Think of the 12 Days of Christmas song. That song is about the Christmas Season on the old calendar, which lasted 12 days. It ended on January 6th, the Solemnity of the Epiphany. There are 13 days in there, so (if I’m not mistaken) they didn’t actually start counting the days until the day after Christmas. Today, on the new calendar, Epiphany can be held on January 6th or the Sunday between January 2nd and 8th, but the Christmas Season doesn’t end there, it lasts until the Baptism of Jesus (the Sunday after January 6th or Monday if the 6th is a Sunday and Epiphany is celebrated then).


Critique of Criticism

Recently, I have come to notice that some people criticize Christianity for celebrating Christmas on December 25th. They claim that because Jesus was probably not born on that day and that the Church simply "Christianized" a pagan holiday, this somehow refutes all of Christianity's claims . . . I know. When you actually write it out, the syllogism falls apart by itself, but let's just cover it just to be sure. When we celebrate a festival, what is more important, that we celebrate together or the fact that the date is accurate? It wouldn't really be a festival if we didn't celebrate it together on the same day; would it? If the celebration of Christmas was such that there was no set date, it would be a chaotic mess, with people celebrating not only on December 25th, but on all sorts of other days, relatively few on the same day. So, we must admit that, if we are going to celebrate Christmas, we must set a date. If we see elements of truth in certain celebrations of other religions, do we admit that those religions must be correct, too? Yes and no. Yes, we admit that what pieces of the truth they have found are true, but they do not possess the fullness of the truth. Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with recognizing elements of practice that express truth and appropriating such practices as one's own. If the early Christians saw truth expressed in celebrating a festival as the sun's course appears to change for the better, it would only seem good that they make their own festival at that time to express the Son's appearance to change humanity for the better. Whether the Mithras cult had an influence on the celebration of Christmas or not, it wouldn't make any difference as to legitimacy of Christianity.


Preparing to rejoice in the celebration of the birth of our Lord,
- Casey

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance, Confession, Forgiveness)


On Thursday, our 2nd graders received their First Reconciliation. Beforehand, we invited the families into our parish hall for some last minute preparation. In order to help them better understand Reconciliation, I distributed flyers with the information below and gave an oral presentation on the information. I've edited a little bit since then, but this post is pretty much what we gave them:


God wants each of us to be in a good relationship with Him and with other people. When I sin, I hurt those relationships. Every time I do something bad, I offend other people. More importantly, I offend God, whom I should love above everything. Small sins (venial sins) offend those relationships and they hurt my soul. Serious sins (mortal sins) completely separate me from God, break my relationships with others, and seriously damage my soul.

By human power alone, these broken relationships cannot be re-established--we can't just say we're sorry to heal the whole relationship; it isn't sufficient (that's how great the effect of our sins is). To fix this, God took on human flesh and became a man. He taught, healed people, and forgave people’s sins. Ultimately, He offered His life to cancel the debt of all our sins and to reconcile us to Himself--that's how much He loves us and wants us to be in a good relationship with Him.



Jesus gave us sacraments to apply His crucifixion to us, so that EVERY person could be forgiven. Baptism forgives Original Sin (the sin we inherit from Adam & Eve) AND it forgives any actual sins we have committed up to that point.
  • "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." [Matthew 28:19-20]
  • "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" [Acts 2:38]
Baptism forgives sins, but someone can only be baptized once--as the creed states, “we believe in ONE baptism.” If someone commits sins after he has been baptized, he cannot be baptized again to be forgiven for those sins.

To forgive sins after Baptism, Jesus gave us the sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus gave His priests the authority to forgive sins in His name. During confession, Jesus forgives us through His priest. Jesus works through His priests. When we go to Confession, we're actually confessing to God through the priest.

  • "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins." [Matthew 9:6]
  • "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." [John 20:21]
  • "They glorified God, who had given such authority to men." [Matthew 9:8]
  • "He breathed on [the apostles], and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'" [John 20:22-23]
  • "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:9]
  • "God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation . . ." [2 Corinthians 5:18]
  • "Confess your sins to one another . . ." [James 5:16]
  • "Many also of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices." [Acts 19:18]
To restore each of our relationships with Him, God has given us the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

It only takes one good confession to completely wipe away the guilt of my sins and restore me to a perfect relationship with God. No matter how sinful I've been, no matter how far away from God I am, no matter how long I've been away, it only takes one good confession to be back in proper relationship with Him--that's how strong the power of the Crucifixion is, and that power is applied to us through the sacraments.

In the prayer that Jesus taught us, we pray “forgive us our trespasses [sins] as we forgive those who trespass [sin] against us.” [Matthew 6:12] An integral part of being forgiven is forgiving other people. If we really want to be forgiven, we need to first forgive the people who have offended us. Forgiveness does not mean we say that their behavior was good; it means that we no longer hold a grudge against the person for having offended us.

Trying to stay in a great relationship with God,
- Casey

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Waiting to Celebrate Christmas


My “Truelove” Gave to Me...

How many of you remember the 12 days of Christmas song? Many of us sing it (or at least hear it) every year around Christmas, but have you ever wondered what those 12 days are? They are a song about the Christmas Season, as celebrated in the Catholic Church. Although retail stores would like you to think that the Christmas season lasts from “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) through Christmas Day, the Church celebrates the Christmas season starting on Christmas Day and extending beyond. On the old Church calendar, the Christmas season went from Christmas Day (December 25th) through the Feast of Epiphany (January 6th). Christmas Day was celebrated and the 12 days of Christmas were the next 12 days up to Epiphany. On the new calendar, Christmas begins on the evening of Christmas Eve and lasts until the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism which falls on the Sunday after January 6th (or on Monday if January 6th is a Sunday). This year, the Christmas Season ends on January 9th. The Christmas Season may no longer be exactly 12 days, as it was on the old calendar, but the idea remains: Christmas is so special that it is celebrated over a season, not just on one day.

The Church tries to clearly differentiate between the Advent season and the Christmas season. You’ll notice a big difference between Masses during Advent and Masses during Christmas. The color for Advent is purple (and rose on Gaudete Sunday); there is no Gloria, and the songs all sing of Jesus as “coming” (i.e. O Come, O Come Emmanuel). The color for Christmas, on the other hand, is white; the Gloria has returned (often in grand fashion), and the songs all sing about Jesus as being “here” (i.e. Joy to the World! The Lord is Come).

Our culture has a tendency to try to celebrate things before their time. How often do you see people starting to celebrate Christmas at the beginning of December? By the time Christmas afternoon comes they’re ready to throw out the tree and pack up all the decorations. At that point, however, the Church is just starting the celebration. Celebrating Christmas early also short-changes the Advent Season. Advent begins 4 Sundays before Christmas (November 28th this year) and lasts until the Christmas season starts at the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve. Advent is a time of excited waiting for the imminent celebration (just as we are constantly excitedly awaiting Jesus’ Second Coming). It is also a time of recollection of how the whole Old Testament was a time of waiting for Jesus to come. All of Advent is a preparation for celebrating Christmas with the Church. By celebrating Christmas early, our culture cuts off Advent’s preparatory power and it leads people to think that Christmas ends on Christmas Day. By doing so, they unknowingly treat most of the Christmas Season as if it were nothing special.

Throughout the Middle Ages, every element of the Christmas celebration was ordered to enhancing the celebration of the Solemnity in Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and sacramentals. Many forms of celebration were employed: songs, flowers, images, statues, etc. Even outside the Mass extra things were used to help highlight what was being celebrated in the Christmas liturgies: plays, carols, songs, dances, etc. All of it went to serve the liturgical celebration of the feast, particularly the Mass--the Christ-Mass. Calvinists and Puritans condemned the religious celebration of the Christmas. They felt that nothing should outrank Sunday in terms of celebration. When Puritans came to power in England, they abolished Christmas (1642). Eventually the monarchy was restored (1660) and re-allowed Christmas, but now it was a much more secular celebration--which became the roots of what we see in society today. There was a focus on the food (plum pudding, goose, minced pie, and roast beef, etc.), a focus on decorations (mistletoe, holly, ivy, the yule log, etc.), but nothing that directly highlighted Jesus or the story of His birth. You can note the lack of Jesus in Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Story. It highlights generosity and goodwill (which are good emphases), but it lacks Jesus Himself. In America, as late as 1870, the Puritan emphasis still kept students in school under strict punishment on Christmas Day, so they could not be out celebrating.

As Catholics, we are encouraged by the Church to celebrate with Her. I encourage you to buck the popular secular trend, which takes Jesus out of Christmas, and return the celebration to its proper focus: Jesus Christ and the Masses at which we particularly celebrate His birth. I encourage you, if you are able, to try to organize your Christmas decorations, parties, and other festivities so that they happen within the Christmas Season. It will take a lot of self-restraint to resist the temptation to decorate and celebrate early, but I promise you, if you truly celebrate Advent during Advent (as a season of waiting and preparation and recollection of salvation history) and Christmas during Christmas (as a season of rejoicing that Jesus is present), you’ll gain a greater appreciation for Our Lord’s Coming and for why the Church celebrates the way She does.

Ideas for celebrating the Advent Season (November 28th - Evening of December 24th):

  • Don’t put your Christmas decorations on your tree right away. Instead, use your tree as a Jesse Tree and hang ornaments that represent Old Testament figures. Pull out the Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve and decorate the tree as a family.
  • Make an advent wreath and light the appropriate candles during family meal times:
    • 1 purple candle during week 1.
    • 2 purple candles during week 2
    • 2 purple and 1 pink candles during week 3
    • 3 purple and 1 pink candles during week 4
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the daily readings for Mass (in the Magnificat or for free online). Reflect on how God prepared mankind for the coming of His Son.
  • Pray the Advent Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Prepare a manger scene that only has animals in it. Place Mary and Joseph far away and slowly move them across the room/house throughout the Advent Season, until they arrive at the stable on Christmas Eve. Once Christmas has begun, put baby Jesus in the manger and bring in the shepherds and sheep. Wait for Epiphany to place the Wise Men in the scene (they came later).
  • Many families who have a larger manger have a custom of placing a piece of straw in the manger for every good deed each person does throughout the season of Advent. As they do so, they are preparing the manger to be nice and soft for Jesus.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/Advent/

Ideas for celebrating the Christmas Season (Evening of December 24th - January 9th):

  • An old custom is to put lights in the windows throughout the Christmas Season to celebrate Christ as the “light of the world” Who has now made Himself visible.
  • Many of us put up Christmas lights on our houses. One suggestion to “highlight” the season is to put up the lights and check them while it is still warm enough outside, but wait to turn them on until Christmas Eve night, then leave them on throughout the Christmas Season (or at least the nights of the Christmas Season).
  • Go to Mass every day (if you can) or read the readings for Mass. Reflect of the joy that we can now share because Jesus is finally here.
  • Pray the Christmas Season Liturgy of the Hours.
  • Wait to give anyone any gifts until the Christmas season actually starts. Since Christmas isn’t just one day long, the gifts can be given throughout the season. (“On the 12th Day of Christmas, my true love gave to me . . .”) If you have multiple gifts to open, try opening only one or two per day so that you are opening gifts throughout more of the season. In the east, Epiphany is the main gift giving day (that is when we celebrate the 3 wise men arriving and presenting gifts to Jesus).
  • Celebrate Epiphany with King’s cake (look online for information).
  • Hold your Christmas parties during the Christmas Season and not during Advent.
  • There are more ideas at: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/seasons/christmas/

May God bless your Christmas Season,

Casey Truelove

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Judged By What They Had Done"




I was just reflecting on the reading from Revelation chapter 20 from last Friday's Mass [my focus is in blue].

[11] Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. [12] And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. [13] And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. [14] Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; [15] and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

I was reflecting on judgment and how our acts determine where our souls end up. We are constantly in a spiritual fluctuation--our good acts draw us closer to God; our bad acts draw us farther away, and our really bad acts cut us off from God.

When we die, we will be judged by the current state of our souls. We too often think (or are led to think) of judgment as God looking for any way He can prevent us from Heaven.

Our current pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote Eschatology--a magnificent book that explains an understanding of the last things (death, Judgment, Heaven & Hell). He describes judgment as a lack of salvation. Here are some of my notes from that section:


• Christ Himself is sheer salvation. Perdition is not imposed by Him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ.

• In death, a human being takes the place which is truly his by right.

• The masquerade of the living with its constant retreat behind posturings and fictions, is now over . . . Judgment consists in [the] removal of the mask in death. [206]

• Man is what he is in truth. Judgment simply manifests the truth.

•The true frontier between life & death does not lie in biological dying, but in the distinction between being with the One who is life and the isolation which refuses such "being-with." [This one is another topic and deserves its own discussion . . . maybe a future post . . .]

•Man becomes his own judgment. Christ does not allot damnation. Instead, man sets limits to salvation. [207]

Salvation is freely offered to us. We are fully capable of accepting it (free will), but we are also fully capable of rejecting it too. We can act to reject the salvation offered to us (sin).

Judgment isn't an unjust accusation. Judgment is a revelation of the truth. We will have no ability to hide behind a false front. Ultimately, judgment just reveals where we are. It distinguishes between who is really "with" God and who is just faking being with God, or who has outright rejected being with Him. Only those who are truly "with" God at their deaths will remain "with" God for eternity.

Our spiritual fluctuation ceases when we die. At that moment, one's spirit separates from his body and it is set on where it will go. There will be no ability to use one's body to hide behind external showings and fake a relationship with God. It will either be present or it won't.

By each and every one of our acts, we either draw deeper into a relationship with God, or farther from Him. Those acts are the basis of our relationship with Him and are the matter on which we will be judged.

We will be judged by what we have done, and many of the things which we should or should not do are written down so that we know how best to stay in good relationship with God. Some of the best examples of these are the 10 Commandments [Catechism of the Catholic Church 2052-2557], the 7 capitol sins and their opposite virtues, and the 3rd section of the Catechism: Life in Christ [CCC 1691-2557].

Trying to act rightly and repenting from the times when I do not,

- Casey

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ad Orientem



It’s not just for the Extraordinary Form
(commonly called the “Latin Mass”) 

Quotes from the book The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger 
(then Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI) 



The History

Before Christ


The Jews saw the synagogue in relation to the Temple. The synagogue was never just a place for instruction, a kind of religious classroom. No, its orientation was always toward the presence of God. Now, for the Jews, this presence of God was (and is) indissolubly connected with the Temple. Consequently, the synagogue was characterized by two focal points. The first is the “seat of Moses” . . . The seat of Moses does not stand for itself and by itself, nor is it simply turned toward the people. No, the rabbi looks--as does everyone else in the synagogue--toward the Ark of the Covenant, or rather the shrine of the Torah, which represents the lost Ark. [64]

The Ark points beyond itself, to the one place of its presence that God chose for himself--the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem... The rabbi and the people gaze at the “Ark of the Covenant”, and in so doing, they orient themselves toward Jerusalem, turn themselves toward the Holy of Holies in the Temple as the place of God’s presence for his people. [66]
After Christ

The worshipper no longer looks toward Jerusalem . . . Christians look toward the east, the rising sun. [68]

In the early Church, prayer toward the east . . . was always regarded as an essential characteristic of Christian liturgy (and indeed of private prayer). This “orientation” of Christian prayer has several different meanings. Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. The word “orientation” comes from oriens, “the East”. “Orientation” means “east-ing”, turning toward the east. [68-69]

The sign of the Son of Man, of the Pierced One, is the Cross, which has now become the sign of victory of the Risen One. Thus the symbolism of the Cross merges with that of the east. [69]

On the altar, what the Temple had in the past foreshadowed is now present in a new way . . . it takes that community beyond itself into the communion of saints of all times and places . . . the altar is the place where heaven is opened up. It does not close off the church, but opens it up--and leads it into the eternal liturgy. [71]

The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of divine revelation. [76]

Pope Benedict XVI often celebrates Mass ad orientem.

The Confusion

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. [75]

The controversy in our own century was triggered by another innovation. Because of topographical circumstances, it turned out that St. Peter’s faced west. Thus, if the celebrating priest wanted--as the Christian tradition of prayer demands--to face east, he had to stand behind the people and look--this is the logical conclusion--toward the people. For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement in a whole series of church buildings within St. Peter’s direct sphere of influence. The liturgical renewal in our century took up this alleged model and developed from it a new idea for the form of liturgy. The Eucharist--so it was said--had to be celebrated versus populum(toward the people). The altar--as can be seen in the normative model of St. Peter’s--had to be positioned in such a way that priest and people looked at each other and formed together the circle of the celebrating community . . . . [But] the Council [Vatican II] said nothing about “turning toward the people.” [77]
Quoting Vogel: “Even when the orientation of the church enabled the celebrant to pray turned toward the people, when at the altar, we must not forget that it was not the priest alone who, then, turned East: it was the whole congregation, together with him.” [79]

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” As one of the fathers of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, J.A. Jungmann, put it, it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us. [80]


The Solution 

Everyone joins with the celebrant in facing east, toward the Lord who is to come. [72]

Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer. [81]

Wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy. [70]

It must be plainly evident that the oratio [the Eucharistic Prayer] is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the actio of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him. [174]


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