St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Advent 4 2008

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On this fourth Sunday in Advent our thoughts should begin to move away from the aspect of Advent which has to do with the second coming of Christ, and focus more on the imminent celebration of the birth of the Christ Child.


The birth of the Christ was foretold by the prophets. Within the life of faith of the Hebrews there was an expectation that the chosen one of God would be born. He was Moshiach – Messiah.


When John the Baptist went around preaching his Baptism of repentance he was asked “Are you the Messiah?” His reply, as we heard in the Gospel today was that he was not the Messiah, but the one sent ahead to prepare the way for the Chosen One of God. He was the one sent to make straight the path, as he cried out in the wilderness and called the people to repentence.


One of the images used by the prophets was that the one who was to come would be a light, shining in the darkness. He would be a light to lighten the gentiles. This concept was the very beginning of the Church’s much abused necessity to be inclusive.


In Scripture there were only two types of people – the Jews and the Gentiles. The Messiah was to be the one who would break that barrier, that separation, and bring all into the household of God the Father. Through the millennia the Church has been expert at ignoring that prophetic injunction to be inclusive: in the early centuries of the Church we fought about the nature of God, and of his Christ – was Jesus true God or true man? As a result we lost the majority of Asia to a new religion at the time – Islam. Through the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution we lost the majority of Europe to secularism. In the 1800’s in Britain the Church lost the working classes to a pious organisation founded by an Anglican priest – Methodism. In the 1980’s and 90’s we were in serious danger of losing all our young people. No doubt we could think of many more examples. And yet, the prophet called for inclusion. The light would shine in the darkness, and, as we well know from John’s Gospel, the darkness will never extinguish it.


Each day in the office of Matins (or Morning Prayer) the Church prays the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zechariah, which he recited as he reacted to the birth of his newborn son, John the Baptist. In that canticle Zechariah prophesies, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that the Dawn from on high would break upon us. You probably know the words well:

“Through the tender mercy of our God: whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”


 The ‘Dawn from on high’, that is what we are waiting for. That is what Advent is all about. We all know that the dawn appears in the east. The early Christians believed that Jesus would come again during the celebration of the Mass, and that he would come to them out of the east. That is why, through the centuries, Christians have built their churches facing east, and even if they were unable to do that, the front end is always known as the east end of the church. 

You may not realize it, but many religions have used geography as a theological reference point. You know, I’m sure, that Muslims turn to face Mecca, no matter where they are. Whenever, and wherever, they go to pray, they turn to face Mecca. Orthodox Jews, to this very day, turn to face Jerusalem when they pray. In the same way Christians historically have faced east to pray. 

In this parish, except for a short period during the time when Fr Collins was Rector, Mass has always been said facing east. We call this liturgical orientation “ad orientem” – to the East. This means that priest and people, together, face Christ, the coming Dawn, coming to us out of the east.  

And there are some very practical implications to all of this: there is much less attention on the priest and much more attention on Christ. John the Baptist, the particular voice and figure par excellence for the Advent Season, said, “He [Christ] must increase, I must decrease.” And so, when we are ad orientem, there is less of a personality cult centered on the priest; there is less distraction for the priest who ought to be looking at God not the congregation and less distraction for people - who are not preoccupied by some of the idiosyncrasies of priests – and in this parish we surely know that priests have them in bucketfuls!


Pope Benedict XVI, over many years – from before he was Pope - has written repeatedly about the importance of returning to the former practice of facing east. Why has Benedict done this at a time when the Church of Rome and most other sacramental churches have got into the habit of having the priest face the people - known liturgically as “versus populum”?  

The simple answer is to restore a healthy sense of the sacred, the transcendent. The Mass should not be perceived as a social hour or “Religious Idol”, but the Church’s worship of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The holy Sacrifice of the Mass does not belong to any priest. Part of why we wear vestments is to emphasise the anonymity of the priest.  The celebrant is not the central actor in the liturgy, except insofar as he acts in the person of Jesus Christ. When we shine the spotlight on the person of the priest -- on his face and features, his gestures and expressions-- we can easily become distracted from the true meaning of the Sacrifice of the Altar. So the time-honoured  custom of the Church was to have the priest stand at the head of the people, all facing in the same direction, forming one body united in worship. And they all face east, waiting for the Dawn from on high. 

It is worth noting that many thousands of Roman parishes around the world have started moving their free standing altars out of the sanctuary. They have gone back to saying mass at the old High Altars that many of them have not used for the last forty years.  In those many parishes where there is still a free standing altar, the priests have followed the Pope’s instruction that they should have six candles on the altar and a large crucifix, irrespective of whether the mass is said ad orietem or versus populum. 

The reason Pope Benedict has given for encouraging parishes to celebrate their masses in this way is interesting. The Holy Father said it was “that none may be excluded”. We hear through that the call of the prophet from of old. 

Which takes us back to our waiting for the one who would “be a light to lighten the Gentiles” and include all in the household of God. We wait for the day-spring from on high. In a short time the dawn from on high will be evident on the altar. In answer to our prayers the miracle of the Sacrament will happen here in our midst. Our Lord, the light of the world, will come to us in the form of bread and wine.  

As we receive the Body and Blood of Christ may God bless us and feed us for the few days left in which we wait for the birth of the infant Christ.



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