The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of the word orient is: To cause to face or point toward the east. For centuries the Church had her priests facing east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, signifying our perpetual readiness and yearning for the return of the Lord. Sacred Scripture tells us that when Christ comes again He will come from the east in the same way that the sun rises in the sky. While not always an actual facing of the east (which could or could not be done depending on the structure of the church building), at least a spiritual intent to face the east was accomplished by facing the altar.
The priest wasn't the only one facing east. The people in the congregation were "oriented" in this direction as well (again, perhaps not physically, but spiritually by facing the same direction as the priest). This was the practice of the Church until a liturgical movement of the 20th century literally turned things around. What was lost in this "re-orientation" was a physical manifestation of the yearning for and expectation of the second coming.
As Advent approaches, Bishop James Conley of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, is embarking on a new practice in his cathedral of offering Mass "ad orientem" or toward the east during this season of anticipation. Bishop Conley writes in the Southern Nebraska Register:
Jesus Christ will return in glory to the earth.Bishop Conley's column can be read in its entirety at the Southern Nebraska Register site. It's worth reading in its entirety. Perhaps "turning eastward" can help us to more deeply anticipate the Lord's return and what His first coming meant for all people.
We do not know when he will return. But Christ promised us that he would return in glory, “as light comes from the east” to bring God’s plan of redemption to its fulfillment...
In the early Church, Christians expected that Christ would come soon—any day. There was hopeful expectation. They were watchful—they looked to the sky in the east to wait for Christ. And because they did not know when he would return, they proclaimed the Gospel with urgency and enthusiasm, hoping to bring the world to salvation before Christ returned.
It has been nearly two thousand years now since Christ ascended into heaven. It has become easier to forget that he will come again to earth. It has become easier to forget that we must be waiting, we must be watching, and we must be ready.
|Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska|