by Fr. Aaron Johanneck, S.T.L.
The season of Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. The word “advent” is from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming.” During this short season we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, it is important for us to remember that Advent is a time not only to prepare for this First Coming of Christ, but also for His glorious Second Coming at the end of time. As stated in the Catholic Church’s Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, “Advent has a twofold character, for it is a time of preparation for the Solemnities of Christmas, in which the First Coming of the Son of God to humanity is remembered, and likewise a time when, by remembrance of this, minds and hearts are led to look forward to Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.”
The Church turns her attention to the Second Coming of the Lord both at the end and at the beginning of the liturgical year, which begins with the First Sunday of Advent. Many of the Gospel passages for Mass during this time describe what this will be like and emphasize the need to be prepared. The Advent summons to “Prepare the way of the Lord” is not only a summons to prepare ourselves for Christmas, but also to prepare our hearts to welcome Christ when He comes again in glory, whenever that might be, for we know not the day nor the hour (cf. Mark 13:32).
Looking forward to the Lord’s Second Coming is also an important aspect of the sacred liturgy. In the liturgy, we recall and sacramentally make present, or “re-present,” the saving events of the life of Jesus Christ. We also look forward to when Christ will come again in glory at the end of time. We see this reality expressed in some of the texts of the Mass. Two of the three Memorial Acclamations, which we proclaim after the Consecration, conclude with the words, “until you come again.” In Eucharistic Prayer III the priest prays, “as we look forward to His Second Coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.” After the Our Father, the priest asks the Lord to deliver us from all evil, “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
From very early in Christianity the rising sun came to represent the coming of Christ in His glory. For this reason it was common for Christians to pray toward the east, the direction of the rising sun. During the celebration of the Holy Mass, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest and the whole assembly would face east in expectation of the coming of the Lord. As Jews pray toward the Temple in Jerusalem, and Muslims to Mecca, so Christians prayed to the east. Since it was not always possible for churches to be oriented (from the Latin, orient, or east) with the altar on the east end of the building, the Church eventually came to the notion of “liturgical east.” Together the priest and people would face the apse (the curved back wall of the church), on which was often depicted an image of Christ in glory seated on His throne in heaven or of Christ crucified, or where the high altar and tabernacle were located.
This position of the priest in relation to the people is not properly understood as Mass celebrated with the priest “facing the wall” or “with his back to the people.” Rather, this position of the priest during certain points of the Mass manifests the truth that the priest is addressing God the Father on behalf of all the people in the person of Christ. The priest stands at the head of the assembly and leads them in prayer to God. Together priest and people are turned, not toward each other, but to the Lord who will come again in glory like the sun rising in the east, conquering the darkness and filling the world with light. Come, Lord Jesus!