Summary: From earliest times, the Church has worshiped in the direction of the east, toward the coming Christ, rather than toward Jerusalem.
December 21, 2010
Monday of 4th week in Advent
Spirit of the Liturgy
Isaiah told Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord YOUR God. Ask anything you like.” So Ahaz piously responded, “no, I will not ask for a sign. I will not put the Lord to the test.” And Isaiah, in obvious frustration and anger, retorted: “Hear then, house of David, is it not enough for you to weary human beings? Must you also try to wear out the Lord, MY God?” This prophecy was in a real way God’s telling the kings who descended from David that God had enough. And God did then take matters, so to speak, into His own hands. Ahaz had gone so far as to burn his own firstborn son, and his only heir, as an offering to the pagan god Moloch. God would give him, through the virgin consort Abijah bat Zechariah, a woman true to God’s law, a son. The son was one of two faithful kings of Judah, Hezekiah. So the Church today is telling us that no matter what corrupt politicians and other leaders may do, God’s purpose of salvation will be carried out. And it will be carried out by the most undistinguished, obscure folk–in the case of Jesus, a young maiden from a nowhere village, Our Lady Mary. She, too, was faithful to the Law and the Covenant, and became heiress to the greatest gift anyone ever received, Our Lord Jesus.
Last week we considered how the early places of Christian worship were modeled after the synagogue and Temple. The Church became the wise householder who brought from its store good things both old and new. But the Christian faith produced “three innovations in the form of the synagogue. . .These give Christian liturgy its new and proper profile.”
In the first place, the worshiper, now centered on Christ, the New Covenant, no longer prays toward Jerusalem. “The destroyed Temple is no longer regarded as the place of God’s earthly presence. The Temple built of stone has ceased to express the hope of Christians; its curtain is torn forever. Christians [now] look toward the east, the rising sun. This is not. . .Christians worshiping the sun, but of the cosmos speaking of Christ.” “Christ, represented by the sun, is the place of the Shekinah, the true throne of the living God. In the Incarnation, human nature truly becomes the throne and seat of God, who is thus forever bound to the earth and accessible to our prayers.” Mary said, “behold the maidservant of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word,” and the Word “became flesh and pitched His tent among us,” in the elaboration of John’s Gospel that we repeat every Sunday. Christian prayer is oriented toward the east, the place of the rising sun, and the place where tradition holds Jesus will be seen as He returns in glory. There is no doubt that this began to happen while the apostles were alive. In fact, the very term “orientation” means “east-ing”–turning toward the east.
“Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man.” Our prayer is, before everything else, Christo-centric. “Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned toward the east, effects entry. . .into the procession of history toward the future.” As we turn east, we look to “the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ. It is a prayer of hope, the prayer of the pilgrim as he walks in the direction shown us by the life, Passion and Resurrection of Christ.”
“That is why,” the Holy Father continues, “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.”
I don’t know whether Hesson and May had this in mind when planning out Holy Spirit’s church, but the axis of our church points eastward. So when we enter the church, following the processional cross, we are reminded that we are oriented–easted–toward the Resurrection, and toward the celestial banquet that is prefigured here in our Eucharist. That is something for us to all reflect on as we move through the days before Christmas.