Signs and Symbols are not reality, they signify or indicate it. And a good sign or symbol indicates in a manner understood by all, that which it was intended to indicate.
There are many such signs and symbols in the Ancient Roman Rite which are not so easily understood today. Part of this has to do with the great cultural changes which have taken place since the time of the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution. In the second, just mentioned, phase of cultural change, the slogan of the day was, “Equality, Liberty, Fraternity”. In the name of a slogan, often what happens is the opposite of the slogan. In the French Revolution, the slogan was practiced as if it meant, “Superiority for the Revolutionaries, Liberty to do as we please to our enemies, and Fraternity in homicide and the destruction of the State and Church.”
Egalitarianism is one of the doctrines which are consequent to the slogan of the French Revolution, “Equality!”. So deep is this only-apparent value in French Society today, that you must beware when taking a train, because the first class car is not the first car in the train, it can be positioned anywhere among the many coaches. When I happened to be in France a few years ago, I asked a Frenchman the reason for this bizarre practice, and he said, “We are a nation that abides by equality for all. If the first class car was always first, it would mean that all others were second class citizens!” To which I wryly remarked, “Well if equality is so important to the French, tell me, why is it that the First Class car is still called “First Class”?”
Egalitarianism seeks as a philosophy to affirm the equality of all, by means of symbols, which are not so apt; they are not so apt, because as a philosophy, Egalitarianism is not really about equality, it is about disorder. Right order requires, as I mentioned in my previous post on the Short Treatise to Order and Disorder, a relation among superior and inferior, before and after, father to son, etc.. When you affirm that all should be equal in dignity or rights, then you are affirming that there should be no order. That is why the slogan of the French Revolution was the slogan of a chaotic political movement which pushed the slaughter of thousands of noblemen and clergy and anyone else who decried its own barbarity.
In the recent history of the Catholic Church we have seen the pervading influence of modern culture, the culture in which we live, find its way into proposals regarding how the Church should be or is conducting its Mission in the world. Some of these proposals have taken root in the manner in which the liturgy is conducted. And one of these regards where the priest stands when offering the August Sacrifice of the Mass.
Now, to be a priest, is to be a mediator, and to be a mediator is to stand between the two things among which one mediates. As Aristotle remarked, a means participates in both extremes. And commenting on this observation of the great Philosopher, St. Bonaventure drew out its conclusion regarding Christ’s own Priesthood: to be our Mediator, the Son of God became man, so that having assumed a singular human nature, the Man Christ, the Eternal Word could occupy, as it were, a middle position between the Eternal Father and sinful humanity.
The Incarnation, therefore is signified by an intermediary position. And thus, the priesthood’s proper role as mediator can rightly be signified by an intermediary position. The Redemption, too, is signified by an intermediary position, because it is precisely when God become Man is put to death as a criminal, that the Son of God as Mediator takes the absolute position between the All Holy God and sinful humanity. The position from which the great prayer of Christ upon the Cross obtained the Redemption of the world!
This is what, I believe, is signified in the ancient practice, found in all the liturgies of East and West, known in popular terms, today, as the position Ad Orientem.
When a priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass he must stand at the Altar. If he stands at the Altar facing the people, the Altar is between him and the people. If he stands Ad Orientem, the people are at his back, and he is between Altar and people.
Priestly Solidarity, that is the solidarity a priest should have with his people, as mediator for them with God, is signified well when he stands at the Altar and faces Ad Orientem, that is, toward the Tabernacle, the Aspe of the Church, the liturgical direction of God. Doing so, makes him take an intermediary, and hence sacerdotal position, the position of a mediator, who prays for AND with his flock, to God, supplicating Mercy, seeking pardon and grace.
Ad Orientem, therefore, can be seen as the optimum position for the priest offering sacrifice, for the mediator, for the sacerdos who wishes to stand together with Christ, in the most significant physical position possible, with the One who offered Himself on behalf of mankind to the Father, and who now offers Himself again for the flock gathered in prayer with His priest on earth.
In such wise, the Altar no longer divides priest and people; the priest no longer looks down upon his flock, but rather, with them, looks up to God. — Seen thus, it is easy to understand why the alteration of the position where the priest stands to offer the Sacrifice, affected the architecture of churches and the desire of architects to depart from the classical forms of Catholic church design (But I’ll leave that topic for another post).