Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave a recent interview to the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne, in which he reiterated his encouragement for priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem (facing the East).

Whatever opinion you may have on the direction of liturgical prayer, this repeated call from Pope Francis’ prefect is undeniably attention-grabbing. But there’s a more central message to the interview that risks being overshadowed in light of the ad orientem discussion: our cooperation in the work of God.

To the magazine’s credit, its headline put it perfectly: “How to Put God Back at the Center of the Liturgy.” Here, ultimately, lies the foundation and context of Cardinal Sarah’s remarks and the Church’s long-standing practice of ad orientem liturgical prayer.

The liturgy is about God. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, to which the cardinal makes constant reference in the interview, calls it “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” (7).

Liturgically speaking, Jesus is the principal actor, the “prime minister.” The work done in any liturgical celebration (the Greek ergon, meaning “work,” is the root of “liturgy”) is his; we participants are his co-workers, cooperators and co-laborers (collaborators).

But Jesus is both fully God and man. Does it not stand to reason that his work is also divine and human? Indeed, it is. In his interview, Cardinal Sarah voices concern that the human element of the liturgy may eclipse the divine dimension.

An imbalanced understanding between the divinity and humanity of Christ is not new. Fifth-century Nestorians emphasized the humanity of Jesus to the detriment of his divinity, while at the same time Monophysites championed the divinity of Christ such that he lost his humanity. The spirit of Nestorius and of the Monophysites still lives today.

For his part, Cardinal Sarah sees today’s liturgy as particularly susceptible to the Nestorian influence of the mundane, rendering celebrations that are all too human: “The liturgy is the door to our union with God. If the Eucharistic celebrations are transformed into human self-celebrations, the peril is immense, because God disappears. One must begin by replacing God at the center of the liturgy. If man is at the center, the Church becomes a purely human society, a simple nonprofit, like Pope Francis has said. If, on the contrary, God is at the heart of the liturgy, then the Church recovers its vigor and sap!”

Similarly, he critiques in the interview (as he has done elsewhere) liturgies as entertainment, friendly meals or fraternal moments.

The liturgy is the great reordering principle — of the cosmos, of history and of us. Its content is the sacrificial work of Christ the Priest who factually and definitively returns — (literally, returns) — all things to the Father. This second Adam’s “Not my will, but thine be done” from the tree reverses the “Not thy will, but mine be done” of the first Adam at that first tree. He is the pontifex maximus (“greatest bridge-builder”), bridging the gap between heaven and earth. To understand anything besides this fact is to miss the heart of the liturgy.

And here we come to a second main point of Cardinal Sarah’s interview. This great act of metanoia (conversion) is so important because we the faithful are called to participate in it. Active participation, that “aim to be considered before all else” in the restoration and promotion of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14), is participation in the reorienting action of Christ.

“The orientation of the assembly toward the Lord,” says Cardinal Sarah, “is a simple and concrete means to encourage a true participation for all at the liturgy. … t is to allow Christ to take us and associate us with his sacrifice. … The Eucharist makes us enter in the prayer of Jesus and in his sacrifice, because he alone knows how to adore in spirit and in truth.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained the essence of active participation in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000): “f we want to discover the kind of doing that active participation involves, we need, first of all, to determine what this central actio is in which all the members of the community are supposed to participate.” 

The action, as discussed above, is Christ’s divine and human work of reorientation, of moving from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. The people in the pews give themselves, united to Christ the Head, as offerings to the Father precisely so that they, too, may experience the fruit of Christ’s self-offering: resurrection and glorification.

Now we can return to where we started and to what, for many, is the most noteworthy takeaway of the cardinal’s interview. If the liturgy’s real substance is Jesus’ definitive return to the Father, and if the baptized are called (“commanded” might be the better word here) to join this saving work, then how might this internal and unseen reality be expressed and fostered externally?

“To convert,” says Cardinal Sarah, that is, “to turn towards God” both spiritually and physically.

He is invoking in this brief-but-powerful assertion what many 20th-century liturgical movement figures identified as the “sacramental principle.”

The sacramental principle is, first of all, a very human principle. Composites of soul and body, men and women express and encounter internal realities via external and bodily signs. Happiness is signified by a smile; peace symbolized by a handshake; love conveyed by roses; forgiveness expressed by the words “I’m sorry.” (Indeed, words are so important that I could never make known my thoughts on Cardinal Sarah’s interview, nor could you ever know them, without my first signifying them in this text.) If they lack outward signs, unseen realities are almost un-real: The sensible expression actualizes (makes actual) insensible things.

Sacraments are a type of “efficacious sign,” and, like signs, they express and foster unseen truths. How, for example, do the unseen realities of the sacrament of baptism — death to the old self, rebirth to a new life and cleansing from sin’s impurity (among others) — become real? Through outward signs of water being poured as the Trinity is being invoked. When these outward signs are missing (e.g., baptism using ice or naming the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”), so is the inward reality these signs express missing.

When this principle is applied to interpreting Cardinal Sarah’s interview, we understand that our internal conversion is, in part, effected by our bodily conversion: “I am profoundly convinced that our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is certainly to celebrate — priests and faithful — turned together in the same direction: toward the Lord who comes. … It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned.

“By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross.” Specifically, “I [have] proposed that the priests and the faithful turn toward the East at least during the Penitential Rite, during the singing of the Gloria, during the Propers and during the Eucharistic Prayer.”

The liturgy’s reality is the work of a divine Person who, in his human and divine natures, has turned creation back to God. His action is carried on today in his Church and is effected in the most powerful way in the liturgy. Liturgical participants, both clergy and lay, signify this return through outward and bodily signs.

Is the ad orientem posture at particular points in liturgical prayer a suitable sign for these spiritual realities?

A particular direction for liturgical prayer will not, in itself, signal greater or lesser participation. Participants at an ad orientem celebration can still be passive spectators, while those at celebrations versus populum (facing the people) can become truly engaged. Still, nearly 2,000 years of practice, most of it coming long before Cardinal Sarah’s interview, indicates that a common direction is theologically sound, liturgically “right and just” and pastorally effective.

For many, ad orientem signals a return to the days prior to Vatican II, good or bad, real or imagined; or a particular political ideology of the Church; or to a proper hermeneutic of reform; or a desired influence between old and new forms; or a rejection of the Council; or a type of Mediator Dei antiquarianism. These sentiments should not be quickly dismissed, for there may be elements of truth in each. Nevertheless, none of them reaches the heart of the matter.

If ad orientem posture, properly understood and prudently implemented, can facilitate our conversion and put God at the center of our lives, then why not return to its use? Such liturgical considerations lie at the heart of Cardinal Sarah’s argument.

Christopher Carstens is the editor of The Adoremus Bulletin, an instructor at The Liturgical Institute at the

University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois and the director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.