In Acts 1:2, we witness angels speaking to the Apostles who were staring into the skies into which the Lord had just ascended: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye there gazing into heaven? This Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come as you have seen him going into heaven.”
Taking this scriptural passage so pertinent to the Easter season and the great mystery of the Ascension, I wish to speak to you of the historical basis for Mass being celebrated – to use a popular and depressingly ignorant expression – of Mass being celebrated, so-called, “with the priest’s back to the people.”
If Christ be God and Scripture Divine, then we would do well to pass over the illusions of modern man and the manufactured ideas arising from a world deeply divorced from its own roots. Rather ought we in Christian humility turn to an apt phrase that came from the pen of that very great Pope, Benedict XVI – arguably the greatest theologian to occupy the Chair of Peter since Gregory the Great. I want to bring to your consideration some historical facts regarding the position of the Christian altar, and that while employing Pope Benedict’s term, “the asceticism of truth.”
How have the remarks of those angels of the Ascension found explicit expression down through 20 centuries of true Christian faith? That is, until brushed away during the past few decades in the Western Church by a cloud of ignorance as dark as its fruits have been ruinous to authentic Christian faith and practice?
When the Church has celebrated the Paschal Mysteries, century upon century as she has done in all of her historical rites, she has explicitly marked her longing for the Lord’s imminent return in exactly the same way that the Apostles saw Him leave. This expectation was a vivid hallmark of the urgency of apostolic belief: it was the seedbed of martyrdom. The last words of the Book of Revelation are, “Come Lord Jesus,” or, more specifically, Maranatha — a word that was chanted over and over again by the early Christians. Nowadays we may honestly ask who among Catholics really gives this dogmatic truth so much as a second thought?
We know from Scriptural passages other than those speaking of the Ascension that the Lord is not only to come again, but once here He is going to judge the living and the dead. Therefore we must understand in considering His departure to what end those angels said that He Who had just left our world will return to it in the same way He went: He is going to come back to our present world from the realms of that inaccessible and uncreated light into which He had then departed. And, in so doing, He will return to us from the Eastern skies into which His risen body, with its Soul and Divinity, physically ascended.
Scripture also records that the Lord’s return will be heralded by a sign in the heavens which tradition says will be that of the Cross — and that this sign be seen by all — which will take place whether people believe or not. In truth, that “all” consists of all the living and the dead: everyone, each of whom will either cower over the imminent justice to befall them for their crimes, or who will radiate with joy for God’s ultimate vindication of their life of faith and obedience to His will. And why so? Because the Lord’s Second Coming is going to bear directly upon the backlogged conduct of every person born into Creation. At that dread advent there will be no liberal whining over supposed “rights” on the one hand, nor shrill indignation of intolerant self-righteousness on the other. In fact, no one is going to say a thing since everyone will listen — for once — to God, Who will assuredly have the final word — in an exacting Divine justice.
The Second Coming is a dogmatic truth of Catholic faith. Do we ever think of it? Do we long for it? Whatever answer may be personally applicable to the question, here is the ecclesial reality: for two thousand years the Church has kept vigil for the Lord’s coming again: the entire Mystical Body has kept watch throughout this entire “little while” (of which the Gospel spoke two weeks ago in great detail) for the return of her divine Head. This attentiveness has not been the effect of magisterial documents nor theological seminars: it has been visually manifested through the principal font of her divine faith, the principal source of our Christian life.
And what is that?
In an age where mystery is overturned in favor of absolute transparency and symbols abandoned by an ascendancy of the superficial, it is necessary that we look at something delivered to us from another age altogether: the Divine Liturgy. After Christ Himself, it is the Church’s richest possession, its foremost treasure, since it is the means by which He is given to us already in time and place. It is also a thing which is given and meant to be received; it is of divine origin and that in combination with the work of the richest human artistry under the tutelage of God’s inspiration and grace. It has been handed down to us through its very long and rich development of history. The Liturgy – and its historical expressions once so assiduously guarded by the authority of the Church Universal – constitutes Catholic worship. All this is simply not equivalent to the endless variety of retouched productions coming out of an already dated “relevance” arisen in the Latin West during the 1960’s – ultimately rationalist, and in many ways the deformed offspring of Rene Descartes and all that followed him in the decaying spheres of modern philosophy.
To really understand what liturgy consists of one must turn to the historical – the venerable – rites of ancient Christian worship, rites which while ever ancient remain ever new (to steal a phrase from our beloved Saint Augustine.)
Let us look at what we are actually doing in church in the traditional liturgy. Let us look at a Mass liturgy whose principles and broad patterns are shared by the whole history of Christianity, East and West; ours being one rite among several whose origins are traced to an era when “going to church” was not viewed as an obligation – a rather unpleasant one at that, needing to be resolved in the shortest time possible so as to get on with other things by which the Lord’s day is secularized rather than sanctified.
The Eucharist is quite rightly understood as being the source and summit of all Christian life – a phrase taken from Pope St. Pius X into the texts of Vatican II. It is in the enactment of the Mass liturgy – but please know that that does not consist primarily in reading its words or, even less, studying documents about its content. It is through our active presence and participation within the living context of its liturgical celebration, in the ritual expression of the Mass in worship that the Church has, precisely, marked its long vigil for the Lord’s return. And how is that? Holy Mass celebrated in its classic forms – choose any rite, for in this regard they are all the quite the same until the reformed liturgy of Martin Luther: every Eucharistic rite in Christendom always placed the faithful behind the priest and his assisting clergy, who, all together like an army faced the altar surmounted by the Holy Cross – not a crucifix; not a tabernacle, but the Cross. And until the 12th century the Cross was adorned by gems, the Crux Gemmata; it was not a symbol of agony but one of God’s inestimable Victory over Satan, sin and death: the moral miracle of mankind’s redemption won.
What is more, the whole liturgical configuration of the Christian church building and its architecture classically was construed in such a way as to have everyone facing the East as they all faced the altar surmounted by the Cross – or, towards the eastern Heavens into which the Lord ascended – the same Heavens from which the angels told us we are to expect His imminent return.
While fulfilling the precepts of charity as commanded by the Lord and Peter in his epistle reading in today’s Mass, ever has Christ’s Church – His Body, His faithful – gathered, again and again, in celebration of the Paschal Mysteries which we are observing ourselves on this day: Holy Mass. And in so doing, we join the immense army of Christian faithful of all times and all places who. Like us. have expressed their fervent belief in the Second Coming in just as many times by “turning towards the Lord” in the framework of their liturgical action.
Here we have a classic example of the subtle but exceedingly real didactic role of ritual, now tragically overturned by the modern phenomenon of what Pope Benedict rightly labeled manufactured liturgy-by-committee. On the other hand, the historical forms of holy worship speak very, very often without words; without syllogism, without reasoned discourse. True worship speaks to the heart by the integrity of its signs, symbols, gestures, actions, perfumes, lights, color, grace and glory. In a word, truth expressed by the integral encounter with the beauty of worship which is “not of this world” leads souls – be they brilliant intellects or simple street cleaners – to Christ in God – and their redemption.
Today Catholics may well ask, “How, in the actions of the typical Western liturgy, do we ‘turn towards the Lord’?” Modern Catholics especially need to rediscover that what is “done in church” is not a rational conceptualization but the formal rendering of our hearts’ worship of God. In theology this is known as latria – adoration given to God as to a god: God as Master, God as Savior, God as Sanctifier – and ultimately, to that one true God Who will come to judge the living and the dead according to their fidelity to His Christ and His teaching.
Thus worship is not a product of preconceived ideas. Catholic worship is, by nature and necessity, the rich, harmonious fruit of 20 centuries of continuity in faith. It is the product of God’s grace acting through men. And thus was born our indescribably rich Christian culture and liturgical patrimony. Its symbols from the various ages are superabundantly rich in content even if modern man has been produced by social conditions too shallow to know how to read them any longer. Liturgy consists of solemn repetitions, whose content and purpose must ever lie beyond the reach of those limited opinions with which modern man would want to impose change upon them. The Church’s received forms of worship are divine gifts to us from the past – not just old baggage to be refashioned or jettisoned at will. Particularly the venerable rites should be shielded from change arising from modern man having either forgotten or lost all sense of what purpose and truths they serve to convey.
In 1992 Pope Benedict outraged the entire liturgical establishment by endorsing, as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the posthumous work of the New Mass’s leading – and outstandingly qualified and unrepentant – critic, Monsignor Klaus Gamber; his La Reforme Liturgique en Question.
One of the things most sharply criticized by Monsignor Gamber is the practical attack carried out on the Catholic faith itself by the unhistorical and anti-liturgical introduction of so-called “Mass Facing the People.” Understanding this apparently shocking assertion so abrasive to those who endorse serious and novel reconfigurations of the liturgy of the Roman Rite is an example of Pope Benedict XVI’s “asceticism of truth.” Asceticism is the manly Christian struggle against lower nature and sin to acquire virtue.
Beloved, what we do in the Church’s ancient liturgy is in deepest conformity with the continuity of all Christian tradition, east and west, rooted in Scripture itself. It stands beyond anyone’s judgment: it is the historical norm against which novelty is, de facto, measured.
The primary and central function of the Eucharistic liturgy has been served at all times, in all places, and in every rite by the traditional orientation of the liturgy. This means the eastward facing of the people, clergy, priest, altar and cross in a single, telescopic, cosmological ordering. This is remains entirely the case, not withstanding hasty archaeological interpretations which run against the absolutely universal liturgical practices from the time of the Apostles, and unbroken in Catholicism until the second decade of the 20th century. Fundamental to its liturgical significance is that this orientation is an harmonious expression of human psychology and the natural ordering of all the hierarchical values operative in worship.
It is fitting to meditate upon these truths on the Sunday after Our Lord’s Ascension, since its liturgical theme is the Church’s vivid belief and expectation of Christ’s Second Coming. In a word, it is the Church’s liturgical answer to the angels question posed to Peter and the Apostles at the Lord’s holy Ascension: “Men of Galilee, why stand ye there looking into the heavens? This Christ will return to you as you have seen Him leave…”
We are standing here gazing into the eastern heavens, watching and waiting for His return.
With all these reflections, then, it has been my intention to recall us all to the center of our faith and what we are doing each time we celebrate Mass. Christ, through us – each according to his rightful role: priest, lesser clergy, faithful – celebrates the totality of the Lord’s Paschal mystery. We, that is, His Mystical Body, the Church, proclaim and lay claim to the pleroma: the fullness of Christ – His Incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return to the Father in glory. By doing so we render unto the Trinity that divine glory which is Its due. We also pray for ourselves and the needs of the world, in penance; and then we are fed by the divine Manna, Christ Himself, that heavenly reality foreshadowed by the Manna of the Israelites wandering in the desert – itself the Biblical type or prefiguring of our human state of wandering, lost in the desert of sin.
Beloved, we are brought to the threshold of glory in these Easter Mysteries to which we give voice and action. And by our very postures in worship, standing as the Church Militant, we continue the Church’s steady march towards the Judgment Seat of Christ; we are turned to the East, and so wait for Him to come back to us in the same way our fathers in faith saw Him go.
God grant that we live according to all these graces, and that He, our Unconquered King, will find us gazing into the heavens in expectation of Him when He comes to bring each of us to Himself in judgment. In that dread moment may we, in humility and grace, be found worthy to share in the radiance of that Heaven where, to prepare a place for each of us to follow, our gracious Savior has so gloriously ascended.
 Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, 138. “We can show with certainty that there has never been, neither in the Eastern nor the Western Church, a celebration versus populum (facing the people); rather the direction of prayer has always been towards the East, conversi ad Dominum (turned toward the Lord).”
It is also significant that through the eastward celebration of the classic rites of the Church the personality of the celebrant disappears from public view as is suitable to the role of alter Christus. This is especially true when the priest conducts himself in an unhurried manner, carrying out his actions sensitively, submissive to the rubrics and ethos of the rite in use. The abuse of this last principle is at the root of much hostility directed to the older Latin liturgy. The remembrance of some priest’s hurried inattentiveness or outright abusive treatment of the former liturgical directives is often confused with what is intrinsic to the rite itself. An entire liturgical patrimony can hardly be reasonably dismissed on the grounds that it was ignorantly abused. Such abuses revealed the “loss of meaning from within” that had already been ingrained into the Latin clergy long before the post-conciliar changes took place. They indicate loss of a cosmological understanding of what liturgy is in the first place. That was replaced long ago by a post-scholastic minimalism that contented itself with sacramental “validity” and its “effects”. This is exactly what the authentic liturgical movement sought to redress. (cf. Gamber, 12.)
Editor’s note: this is a modified version of Dom Oppenheimer’s sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, 2015. It has been reprinted with permission.