‘Like lightning coming from the east, so the Lord will come on the Day unknown to all. Alleluia!‘The antiphon on the 2nd Psalm at vespers for the 1st Sunday of Advent
Why do Christians face east to pray?
We may as well ask why Christians face any particular direction at all to pray? After all, do we not often sing that God is “present everywhere, filling all things”? Surely, He will hear our prayer wherever we are, and whichever direction we face.
Yet, we human beings are physical beings who exist in space and time. So what we do with our bodies matters. It isn’t enough to contemplate these mysteries of our faith but we must involve our bodies in the reality of them. That is why we cross ourselves and bow and prostrate in worship, and have our bodies immersed in water at baptism, and why we receive into our own bodies the Body and Blood of the Saviour, and it is why we face a particular direction to pray to the God Who became flesh (John 1: 14) at the first Christmas in order to save us.
But why east in particular?
Well, first and foremost, like the Holy Scriptures, and the prayers, the sacraments and all other elements of Church life, the practice of facing east to pray has come down to us as part of Holy Tradition: that body of faith, practices, and spiritual life that has been handed down to us from earliest times. The first disciples who sat the feet of Christ and learnt from Him passed on what they had learnt to those who came after them, down to our own day. This is why we pray towards the east, and why many Orthodox Christians have icons at home placed against an eastern wall. It is why churches are traditionally built to face east, and why, when we are laid to rest at the end of our lives, we are buried in the ground facing towards the east.
The east is where the sun rises, shining its light on the darkness of night. For this reason, the rising sun has long been a cosmic symbol of the Christ, Who comes to reveal Himself to us, and Who shines the radiant light of his salvation and truth on the darkness of our understanding and sin. The Holy Prophet Zechariah even refers to the Saviour as the Orient, which literally means “the rising”, and is the name we give to the direction of the sunrise. It is one of the great names of the Saviour, by which we invoke Him to come among us in the final few days of Advent (21st December).
‘Thus says the Lord Almighty, “Behold the man: Orient is his name, and He shall rise up from below the horizon, and He shall build the house of the Lord.”‘Zechariah 6: 12
It is only through the Lord’s revelation of Himself that we can come to know God, for we are powerless to do so on our own. So, when we gather and stand together as the people of God, and face east to pray, we are together awaiting the revelation of God.
Advent seems a good time for us to remind ourselves of this element of Christian worship. For this is the season of expectation, when we await the coming of the Saviour, both in his first coming at Bethlehem and his second coming at the end of time. Our facing east – clergy and people together – is a constant reminder that our focus in worshipping God cannot be limited to the here and now, to our local gathering. For we are a pilgrim people on this earth, longing for our homeland in the heavens.
Therefore, our focus must go beyond our immediate gathering of worshippers, and beyond the four walls of our church, as we look out into the cosmos, into the rising sun, and beyond that to the God beyond time and space Who calls us into union with Himself.
It is with this in mind that we should approach God in worship and prayer – we who have received the traditions given to us by those before us and who have a duty to pass them on intact to those who come after us.
Therefore, when we are at the Mass or other services in church, when we say our prayers at home, when we lie down at night to sleep, and ultimately, when we take our final rest in the grave awaiting the common resurrection, we should be united in facing east with each other, with joy, repentance, and expectation awaiting the returning Lord, the Sun of Righteousness (Jeremiah 23: 5), Who will come like lightning out of the east (Matthew 24: 27), Who, at the beginning of the world, planted his garden eastward in Eden (Genesis 2: 8), the gateway to whose sanctuary in his holy temple faced towards the east (Ezekiel 44: 1), for He is indeed that Orient from on high who has visited us, (Luke 1: 78-79) to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.