It is easy to appreciate why the sun would become an object of reverence, even adoration, in the ancient world. The sun gave light and provided warmth and encouraged growth and determined the passage of time. The worship accorded the sun by many of mankind’s human ancestors is certainly understandable.
Even in the Judaeo-Christian tradition the sun and its rays are often used as metaphors for Divinity. Ezekiel viewed temple ministers reverencing the sun: “And behold, at the entrance to the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of the LORD and their faces toward the east; and they were prostrating themselves eastward toward the sun.” Malachi prophesied the arrival of the Messiah with sun imagery: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.”
Zachary also visualized the arrival of the Messiah as a sunrise: “…the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Jesus, of course, envisioned himself as “the light of the world.” And the second reading at Mass this Sunday finds St. Paul employing several solar references: “For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day…”
So pervasive and so compelling is the imagery of the sun as a god and especially of Jesus as a stellar celebrity that even the supremely orthodox teacher and Pope, Benedict XVI, favors the celebration of Mass, and perhaps prayer in general, to be facing East, facing the rising sun, facing the new day, and also facing that earthly location, Jerusalem, where God first revealed himself in word and in flesh.
Pope Benedict even suggests that when church buildings or church communities are not geographically facing Eastward a large crucifix should be placed centrally on the altar flanked with majestic candles symbolizing the saving activity of Christ on Calvary, which did indeed take place in the East, on Jerusalem’s dreadful mount. This Benedictine option is visible in a number of churches locally and elsewhere.
Now, Pope Benedict is certainly liturgically correct in insisting that a crucifix or an artistic representation of the Passion and Death of Christ should be prominently displayed wherever Mass is celebrated. (A figure of the Risen Christ may certainly be displayed in church, but never displacing a prominent depiction of Christ at the moment of his death, as renewal is the central action of the Mass.)
But a large crucifix on the altar of sacrifice is clearly redundant. The eyes of all at Mass should have a clear, unobstructed, continuing view of the Sacred Species, of the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, presented separately on the altar as at the moment of Christ’s death. As St. John quotes the Jewish Scriptures, “And they shall look upon him whom they have pierced.” Certainly the Catholic Mass, the Roman Liturgy, is an occasion when reality should take precedence over symbolism — and in this case, it is the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated Eucharist that should absorb every fiber of the worshipper’s attention and adoration.
How fortunate for contemporary Catholic congregations to have the substance of Christ’s Body and the element of His Blood visibly located in the midst of the worshipping community for their enduring adoration and comfort. While the elevation of the sacred Body and precious Blood, highlighted by the tone of bells, is inspiring and uplifting, Christ’s continued Real Presence in the midst of the assembly on the paten and in the chalice should certainly be the focus as well as the delight of the faithful.
A basking in the wonder of Christ’s Divine Presence, rather than a momentary glimpse of the Master’s elevated Flesh and Blood, is more than appropriate. The Memorial Acclamation joyously declared after the consecration of the Eucharist, “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again,” clearly connotes a continued celebration of Christ’s saving death, a sustained celebration, certainly enduring for the remainder of the Eucharistic Prayer and through the reception of Holy Communion and then into daily life.
The Second Coming of Christ, like the sun rising from the East, honored during Advent and professed weekly in Creed, “…he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead...” must never overshadow today’s Real Presence of Christ, gifted to the believing community through the Eucharist. The Body given and the Blood shed are no metaphors; they are the heart and soul of Catholicism.