God’s son shines brightly in the East

Father John A. Kiley

In the musical film, “The Sound of Music,” as Maria von Trapp wends her way from the cloister gate to the church altar, the camera follows her stride down a long aisle, up a good number of steps, across the sanctuary, before ascending the ornate baroque altarpiece, rising above the church roof toward twin bell towers and finally gazing off into the blue Austrian sky. The viewer’s eye is faithfully guided upward toward celestial heights. This majestic cinematic sweep, enhanced by stately wedding music, graphically and happily illustrates Pope-emeritus Benedict’s nostalgic and distinctively Bavarian appreciation of the Catholic liturgy.

Following the patristic lead of St. Augustine and the scholastic style of St. Bonaventure, Pope Benedict adopts as his liturgical motto the invocation, “Sursum corda,” meaning, “Lift up your hearts.” The retired pontiff fondly understands the liturgy to be an opportunity for the believing community to raise their minds and hearts to God through ritual. For example, His Holiness has written much on the ideal for church buildings to be oriented toward the East so that during worship the heart of priest and people alike may be lifted heavenward to face the rising sun from which direction Christ will return in majestic glory. Just as the blue Austrian sky overhead betokened the Von Trapps’ wedded bliss, so looking up toward the eastern morning sky, brilliant with a new sun, promises in Pope Benedict’s mind the sure arrival of Christ and heavenly happiness. The von Trappe nuptials and Pope Benedict’s East-oriented Mass, while clearly quite different, are both baroque experiences elevating the human mind and heart aloft.

Pope Benedict observing the Eastern sky for the return of Christ somewhat accords with Christ’s own words to Nicodemus to be heard in this coming Sunday’s Gospel account, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Pope Benedict clearly favors a lifted up Christ. Pope Benedict well acknowledges that it is too late to have every church building and every liturgical assembly face East so he graciously urges that a crucifix be placed prominently on Catholic altars creating, as it were, a community’s own East, facing the returning Christ at least symbolically if not geographically. This so-called Benedictine arrangement of a church’s main altar – sizeable central crucifix flanked by substantial candles – is occasionally observed even locally. Certainly in this His Holiness is in agreement with traditional liturgical practice that insists that a worthy representation of the Passion of Christ be visible wherever Mass is celebrated. The Mass is after all a presentation of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. So a crucified Christ, rather than Christ in some other stage of his ministry even the Resurrection, is rightly required by Church regulation.

Still, respect for the return of Christ at the end of time, symbolized by facing East watching for the rising sun, must never obscure the belief that Christ has already entered into human history and is “with us always until the end of days.” Placing a crucifix on the altar to symbolize an orientation toward the returning Christ must never obscure the belief that Christ is already present on Catholic altars through his Sacred Body and Precious Blood made truly present, and not just symbolically represented, under the appearance of bread and wine. As a German raised in the shadow of Luther, the retired Pope views the Mass as much more than a memorial meal. But neither is the Mass ever less than a meal. Consuming the Body and drinking the Blood forms a vital part of raising the mind and heart to God!

The ancient custom of facing the East for prayer may certainly be respected and certainly represents a laudable and ancient pious practice. The Jewish and Islamic cultures have known this Eastern prayer orientation for centuries and their piety has been nurtured by it. But the Jewish and Islamic traditions do not know the Incarnation. They do not know that the Son of God has already entered human history in the man Jesus Christ, and that this Christ is made available to believers not only in sign and symbol but in sacrifice and sacrament daily upon Catholic altars. Rather than larger crucifixes gracing our altars, perhaps grander chalices and larger patens could be the contemporary Church’s way of creating its own personal East, highlighting God’s already risen Son shining brilliantly in the Eucharistic elements.