The end of the calendar year often brings with it a heightened sense of hope. One cannot help but yearn in eager expectation for the corner to turn on a new year. What mysteries and adventures does it hold in store?
The autumn months lead us into the Season of Advent. And these autumn days, whose days grow ever shorter and nights grow ever longer, point us towards that mystical message of Advent: that in the fullness of time, Our Lord will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We find ourselves longing for the corner to turn on this age, to move forward into the age to come and discover the mysterious unknowns it holds in store for us.
Soon we will turn our hearts to Our Lord’s birth, but not before we enter the Season of Advent in anticipation of Our Lord’s Second Coming. Christ’s future return is the real-life fulfillment of this present age for which we continue to watch and wait.
The sunrise, an especially welcome arrival during these long autumn nights, reminds us in glorious fashion that the Son of God will come again in glory. Each sunrise is a natural outward and visible sign reminding us of the eternal hope of Christ’s return.
So central to the Christian faith is the Second Coming that across the ages the faithful have worshipped facing east, towards the rising of the sun. This is why many church buildings are built so the congregation faces east, that the joyful expectation of the Bridegroom’s return can be infused into His Bride the Church. Have you noticed you are facing eastward when sitting in St. Michael’s church? This is no coincidence. Our forbearers kept this tradition – and its spiritual significance – in mind when they laid out the building footprint.
There was a time not long ago when priest and people knew nothing different than worshipping Almighty God together, facing east towards the rising sun. In recent years, however, the liturgical practice of the Church has been dramatically altered. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1960s), altars were pulled out from against the back walls and made free-standing. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the congregational community, the priest began standing behind the altar, facing the people.
Naturally, when a priest stands behind the altar and faces the people, the focal point of worship also shifts. No longer does the gathered community face God together. Now the gathered community faces . . . each other. The change is subtle, but significant.
Symbolically speaking, this modern liturgical arrangement seems to exclude God. There is an added temptation for the people to put the priest in the place of God, rather than seeing the priest as a member of the body. The priest, while a leader and an intercessor on behalf of the people, is also one of the people. This is best reflected when the priest faces the altar with the people.
This placement of the priest standing with the people facing east is called ad orientem, Latin for “to the east”.
The practice of priest and people looking at each other during worship is so common that many congregations know nothing different. This past year, in an effort to grow in holiness and focus our hearts on God alone in worship, St. Michael’s priests have returned to the tradition of facing east along with the congregation, towards the sunrise. And this Advent we will continue to face the Son together as a community, worshipping Him as Our Most Gracious Lord and Saviour, and looking forward with eager anticipation to His coming again!
This article was written by Fr. Doran Stambaugh and published in the 2014 Winter Messenger.