The season of Advent rightly draws the attention of the believer toward the second coming of Christ, the final judgment and the world to come. These eschatological moments in salvation history are integral to a full appreciation of the Gospel message. Christians profess Sunday after Sunday that Jesus Christ “…will come again in glory to judge the living the dead.” Worshippers regularly profess that “…of his kingdom there will be no end.” They roundly acknowledge that they “…look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Rightly then does the Church reserve the four weeks preceding Christmas as a time to ponder and appreciate the final event of history: the dawn of the Daystar, the rising of the Sun of Justice, the return of Christ in glory.
Some believers propose that the Church’s appreciation of the return of Christ should not be limited to the season of Advent. Rather, the Church should emphasize the believing community’s longing for the return of Christ by restoring the former manner of celebrating Mass with congregation and celebrant together all facing the East (ad Orientem) from whence Christ, the Daystar, will dawn at the end of time. Many find some appeal in this image of the priest leading his people onward toward eventual glory that will be realized only in the life to come. The people of God are viewed as a pilgrim people, a militant people, marching along hopefully together behind by their pastor, their shepherd, toward eternity, toward heaven, toward the Father.
Although certainly fundamental to the fullness of the Gospel message, the eventual return of Christ and the promise of the world to come are neither the sole nor even the dominant biblical themes that should inspire and guide the worshipping community gathered weekly to celebrate the Eucharist. When Jesus celebrated his final Passover meal at the Last Supper, a ritual meal graphically recalling the Exodus, he chose that moment to institute the Eucharist, the new paschal meal that would vividly recall his personal Exodus, his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Just as the Jews drew and still draw their chief inspiration from the Exodus event deep in their ancient history, so the Christian community must center its hope on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Christian Exodus event, which took place deep in the Church’s history. At the climax of the Paschal meal, Jesus did not charge the disciples to “Do this in anticipation of me,” urging them to look to the future. Rather Jesus pointedly said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” enshrining salvation history’s solemn past. The Paschal Mystery, not the Parousia, is the proper liturgical environment within which Mass should be celebrated. As St. Paul would later write to the Corinthians, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
Wisely then did the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council reverse (literally) the positions of the priest and the altar during the celebration of Holy Mass. Mass is not primarily an invitation to long for a future event. Mass is first and foremost an invitation to consider and savor a past event: the passion, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ — as well as all those Old and New Covenant events that celebrate him. It is no accident that an image of the crucified Christ must be visibly represented wherever Mass is celebrated. Nor is it an accident that the Eucharist is present under two elements, bread and wine, signifying the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ visibly separated, as at the moment of his sacrificial death. Nor is it an accident that the altar on which the sacrificial banquet is renewed, previously unnoticed within a towering framework, is now entirely visible to both priest and people, reminding celebrant and congregation that authentic worship of the Father demands full participation by the faithful in the ritual that renews Christ’s death and resurrection.
A priest leading his people in prayer toward a God who is out there in the beyond is clearly a pre-Christian notion, explicitly dispelled by the arrival of Christ into history at Christmas. The beyond is now in our midst, as Bonhoeffer happily noted, not to be hidden behind the folds of a chasuble but to be adored openly on the white linen of the altar of sacrifice.