Towards God: Part II

Last Sunday I wrote about the meaning of the priest celebrating the Mass, standing at the altar, facing altar and tabernacle, with the people behind him. I wrote about this in the context of recovering the meaning of the Mass as a sacrifice offered to God. Yes, the Mass is also banquet, but it is a sacrificial banquet and the meal, holy communion is the fruit of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the renewal of the offering of his Body and Blood, first offered on the Cross. I also announced my intention to celebrate the Mass ‘towards God’ during the season of Advent, the season in which we renew our expectation of the Lord’s coming, up to and including Christmas day.

Today, I would like to continue on this theme introducing some further reasons for celebration ‘towards God’.

Last Sunday I gave three reasons that came from the Mass as a commemoration of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, the symbolism of direction at Mass, and the continuity between the Catholic worship of the Mass and the sacrificial liturgy of the Jerusalem Temple. Today, I want to add some reasons that are based more on the person and role of the priest himself.

Once again the key text comes from the Letter to the Hebrews: Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb 5:1)

What we see here is that the priest stands in the middle between God and the people; he is a kind of mediator; he shares in the work of the one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ. (1 Tim 2:5)

Though the infinite value or merit of Jesus’ work as ‘mediator’ derives from his divine person, he is able to be a mediator not because he is the Son of God, but because he is a man born of the Virgin Mary. As high priest and mediator of all mankind Jesus was taken from among men, he was separated from men, and by his divine sonship he was consecrated from the first moment of his conception in the womb of the Virgin. He is separated from the rest of humanity in order to act as their representative before God; as their representative he embodies all those whom he represents. We have then three things, the multitude of mankind, the mediator who, as a man, is one with the multitude and embodies them, and God, to whom he is united as the Son of God in the Holy Trinity, to whom leads the men he represents and to whom he reconciles the men he represents by means of his sacrifice on the Cross.

All of this is made present ritually and sacramentally through the Mass and the ordained priesthood so that the people of God may share in the reality and receive the fruit of Jesus’ sacrifice.

That means that in the Mass we have three things: the people of God, the priest who through his ordination is united to Christ and embodies and represents the people; and God, represented by the altar and present in the tabernacle. The priest stands in the middle as ‘mediator’.

This symbolism is confused when the priest stands facing the people from the opposite side of the altar, but is made evident when the priest stands facing the altar and tabernacle, with the people behind him, as they ones he is representing, as the ones he is supposed to be leading to God.

Following this train of thought we can think of some negative consequences for the priest himself when he stands at the altar facing the people.

First, he stands facing the altar with his back to the tabernacle, which means he must celebrate the Mass intentionally ignoring the abiding presence of the Body of Christ in the tabernacle.

Second, the priest is subject to the strong temptation to focus not on God, but on ‘performing’ for the people. Precisely at the moment in which the priest should be enjoying an intimate focus on the amazing reality on the altar, in which he is taking part in a unique fashion, he is tempted to interact with the people in front of him, while he has the tabernacle behind him. In any case, this puts the priest under great stress, so that instead of drawing life and energy from his service at the altar, as should be the case, he is drained thereby.

If this happens the celebration of the Mass becomes for the priest a ‘mere job’ that he is glad to get away from on his day off. Once the Mass become a ‘mere job’, the whole life of the priesthood ceases to be a vocation, like that of a husband and father, and also becomes no more than a job. At that point the priest will start to looking for happiness and fulfillment elsewhere, which certainly contributes to the sort of conduct that brings disgrace on himself, on the Church, and on Jesus Christ.

Even so, it is not my present intention to introduce a permanent change here at St. Peter’s. For one, we are only one parish among many in the Diocese. Other priests who celebrate here on occasion would not be prepared for it. There are also occasions like weddings when it would be difficult to arrange without some major reconstruction around the altar.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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