Last week a friend visited me. We got to talking about the Mass… and I showed her a video on Youtube of a priest consecrating the Holy Eucharist ad orientem. No, this is not the name of a famous Chinese restaurant- it means facing towards the east, towards the altar. Inadvertently, I started gushing about the priesthood, what a gift it is and how it is a profound sign of romance with God.
To begin, the Mass itself is shrouded in nuptial language and symbolism. Paul refers to the Church in his letter to the Ephesians: “And the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:31-32) The book of Revelation was originally called “Apocalypsis” from Greek, meaning “unveiling” and it describes in detail a heavenly liturgy and the sacrificial wedding feast of Christ. Christ himself used wedding imagery in his parable of the King’s banquet where those without proper garments were cast away. Most telling, one of the angels gathered around heaven’s throne in Revelation exclaims: “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (19:9)Everything about a Mass is nuptial. When Mass bells ring, it is a summons to all, to come to this wedding feast. Wearing garments, the priest approaches the altar from the church’s central aisle, as do a bride and groom. The penitential rite asks for God’s forgiveness, so we may be cleaned of sin and given the white garments of grace. We approach the Holy Eucharist from that same aisle, bowing in humility and accepting the flesh of Christ, our Divine Spouse.
Now that this short background is given, I will speak just of the priest, because it was what I saw in the priest that brought me to such admiration. A Catholic priest is one wedded to the Church- and to Christ. The sacrament of Holy Orders unites him with God Almighty in an unseen bond of untold power. It melds his soul into the soul of the Church, which is the Holy Spirit sealed by the blood of Christ. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the consecration, ad orientem. (note: I am not going into liturgical politics here and am aware that consecration ad populum or facing the people, is wholly valid. So please do not misinterpret things)
The priest becomes closed to the world and opened to God. He stands there, partly in silence, sometimes muttering and sometimes speaking plainly. A conversation is happening there, a dialogue so hidden that we dare not pry, we don’t ask “Father what were you saying back there?” It is a conversation so tender that the very heart of Christ seems manifest before us. We perceive Calvary and we gasp at the horror- and sheer beauty of it.
While an epic scene unfolds, the priest becomes less like a stuffy celibate and every minute more like an enraptured spouse. He leans close, whispers sweet nothings to God, his Beloved and gazes into the space between heaven and earth. The man without a wife and family experiences the greatest of intimacies. In amorous poetry matching the Biblical Song of Songs, the soul makes love to God. Here, the priest seems to say: “My Dearest, My Only, I am here…I worship you… I love you. Stay with me and never leave!” The priest becomes as John, the Beloved who leaned upon Our Lord’s breast and who, captured by love, ceased to worry.
Someone who relinquished what is so natural and so goodly for every human man suddenly realizes why. In that moment, nothing is worth more than God. Nothing beckons and calls but God alone. The priest realizes only he can approach the altar, only he may caress the sacred host or raise the precious chalice. Only he can place his head on the breast of Christ, place his hand into His saving wounds and draw out the sacrifice which is mankind’s salvation. What a gift! What profound intimacy and divine love! All the mercy, long-suffering and tenderness of God revealed here!
Our only proper reaction is to shrink back, bend low and weep as did the Israelites when smoldering clouds wreathed the mountain of Sinai. We can say, “Jesus Christ, my Lord and God, have mercy!” One thing we absolutely cannot do is ignore it, shrug or say in prideful impatience: “What is going on? Will he hurry up?” Even non-Catholic and non-Christian persons cannot pretend that something mysterious is not happening. Whether one adores or despises the priest, he can’t look away; he can’t help but be moved on some level. God is at work in the hands of a priest. He declares His love through the whispers of a priest. He uses lowly men, both wicked and saintly men, doubtful and confident men, ugly and wondrous men, selfish and loving men. Yes, God, who created the entire Universe in ages primordial, chooses mere man that He may draw all men to Himself.