“I will go unto the Altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth!” -Psalm 43
These are the opening words of the “prayers at the foot of the Altar” which are said in the Traditional Latin Mass. The priest and the server together recite Psalm 43 (which would have been said by the Jewish priests entering the Holy of Holies) in a dialogue: “Introibo ad altare Dei” to which the server replies “ad Deum qui laefiicat juventutem meum”. It is a beautiful way to begin the Mass which builds up the anticipation of going up to the holy place to offer Christ at the Altar. It is that act of “going up” to the Altar that I want to discuss here.
If I was to go to a concert I would see that the stage is raised. This is to make the show I am about to watch easier to see, especially for those people in the back; however, this is not the reason the sanctuary is raised in Catholic Churches. When we are at Mass, we are at the foot of the Cross. The raised sanctuary represents Calvary. There are usually three steps that go up to the sanctuary. These three steps represent faith, hope, and charity, as well as the Holy Trinity. These three theological virtues are the means by which we imitate Christ as we follow Him carrying our own crosses up to Calvary (Luke 9:23). We also see the priest, who stands “In the Person of Christ”, going up the three steps to offer sacrifice by way of these virtues, just as Christ ascended Calvary by way of the Via Dolorosa. Traditionally, the priest would say the following prayer as he ascended these steps: “Take away our sins, we pray you, O Lord, so that with pure minds, we may worthily enter the Holy of Holies”. This prayer connects the Old Testament Holy of Holies with its New Testament counterpart—Calvary, the new place where sacrifice is to be made. This act of sacrifice is re-presented at each Mass.
This act of “going up” shows that at Mass we are “going somewhere”. Traditionally, churches were built facing east (called “liturgical east” in cases where the church faces some other direction like at OLOJ) in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ. The priest and the people would face east together towards the Lord in this anticipation. You will often hear that the priest “had his back to the people”. Rather, the priest was leading the people towards Christ (think of a bus driver. Which way is he facing? He is naturally facing away from the passengers because they are all going somewhere together. Likewise consider a general leading his army into battle). This form of worship is called “ad orientem” which means “towards the east” and was the standard form of worship in the Catholic Church for almost 2000 years. This helps us recognize that the true “audience” at Mass is God and not us, and that we all partake in worshiping Him through our own participation by offering our sacrifices, sufferings, and joys at the Altar. The Second Vatican Council, while it made for an allowance for the priest to face “versus populum” or “towards the people”, actually envisioned that “ad orientem” would remain the norm; However, today it is almost never practiced. In spite of the direction that the priest faces, we are all “going somewhere” when we gather for Mass, and that is towards the Lord. Therefore, let us all “go unto the Altar of God, who giveth joy to [our] youth”.