Liturgically, when the priest faces the altar, he is celebrating the Mass ad orientem, which means “towards the East,” a manner of praying inherited from the Jews, God’s chosen people. There is ancient symbolism involved in praying this way and in seeing the sun as a symbol of Christ and the new messianic day that has dawned with His Incarnation. Churches were traditionally built facing East, whence the sun rises and whence Christ is traditionally expected to return at His Second Coming.
The posture also helps remind us that when a priest offers Mass, he is acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, Who offers Himself in the Mass to God the Father for the sins of mankind. The personality of the individual priest is not the focus—Christ acting in His priest is the amazing mystery taking place.
If the priest faces the altar, does this mean that the priest is turning his back to the people?
Actually, he is not turning his back on them—instead, all are facing the same direction, like a general leading his troops or a pilot flying a passenger plane. As you recall, since the priest is offering this Sacrifice on behalf of the people, he is representing them by standing at their head. Particularly in the Offertory and the Canon of the Mass, you will notice that the priest rarely uses the word “I.” Rather, he almost always speaks in the plural: “We offer,” “We Thy servants,” “We sinners,” and so on.
What’s amazing about the Holy Mass—both the Extraordinary Form and the Novus Ordo—is that each and every prayer and gesture has real significance in the worship of Almighty God, giving a sense of the sacred that helps both the priest and the people to enter more deeply into what is truly happening: the meeting of Heaven and earth upon the altar.
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