For the feast of the Ascension, there’s a lot of really good commentary telling you what the Ascension means, why it matters, etc. Some of it you will even find at Catholic Exchange. For this series, I try to show you the different ways the Extraordinary Form teaches us about the faith. Since everyone is focusing on what the Ascension is, I figured I’d try something a little different.
In the Communion verse (a verse from Scripture chanted after the reception of Communion), we hear that Christ has ascended “above the heaven of heavens to the East.” In this verse we can see the explanation for why traditionalists (as well as Eastern Catholics) worship ad orientem, that is worshipping where both priest and faithful face the altar. In old Churches, they are built with the altar facing East, but in some modern Churches this is not possible so facing the altar is still called ad orientem. While this has often been dismissed as “the priest turning his back on the people”, there is a deep theological significance to this.
The first is to emphasize that, while a priest might indeed be the leader of his congregation, he is a sinner just as they are. We look to the cross for the redemption, so does the priest. He is a “leader” in the sense that he is walking the same path we are, and he sets on that path every Sunday alongside us.
The second is that this walk has a destination of heaven, which is represented by the sanctuary. Just as Christ enters the heavenly sanctuary to offer Himself (Hebrews 9), the priest enters the heavenly sanctuary to offer Mass. For Latin Catholics, the tabernacle has a spot of prominence, rising above the altar. We know from the Book of Revelation that before the throne of God lays the Lamb standing as if slain (Rev 5:6). If the tabernacle is the throne of God, the Eucharistic sacrifice offered on the altar is the Lamb. The priest approaches the throne of God and stands before it. A lot of the biblical symbolism of the sanctuary is lost when you have a priest that stands behind the altar facing the people.
From these simple points of theology (the Lord being in the East) there is a lot of things we can learn about how your Churches are built, and the spiritual lessons they are meant to convey. Since Christ is to the East, the only way to go to him is to go in that same direction. We must walk the same path that Christ walked, a path that culminates at the altar, just as His path culminates at the Cross. Just as there is one path to the altar when it is arranged ad orientem, so there is only one path to Christ, and that is the Catholic Church. A third point to consider is that in a Church where ad orientem is practiced, the focal point of every liturgy is the Eucharist in the tabernacle. As it is for the Church, so it must be for us. The Eucharist must be the focal point of our lives, in the tabernacle of our heart.
What can we take from these lessons about the Ascension? Most importantly, we must remember that the path Christ walked, that path ended in heaven. So will ours. While we might not be able to rise to heaven on our own power, we can still be raised to heaven. This is why during a requiem Mass, the casket is placed right before the communion rail, between heaven and earth, asking that God accept their soul.
When a Church follows this way of offering the liturgy, it becomes easier for her members to find a home where they can “dwell in mind among heavenly things” as the Collect tells us.