“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27)
Why do churches face east? This is a question that the building committee is wrestling with, so I thought I would weigh in on the subject.
As children of God, we long to be united with God. Because of this part of our nature, it makes sense that we would want to turn to Him, literally, in prayer. This makes special sense because we are a sacramental Church. When we look to the tabernacle to pray, even though we see bread and wine, we believe Christ’s body and blood to be there in a real way. When we are baptized we do not see the sins removed nor do we see our fallen nature fixed, but we believe it to be true. All sacraments have outwards symbols, but the real work is done out of our sight. Resting on these very real examples, if we look for Christ’s return, if we want to be united with Him, we should look east.
The canon of the council of Trent speaks of this also:
Five years before he became Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that, notwithstanding various liturgical innovations, “one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” As he wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us. –
And finally, the Apostolic Constitutions, a work of eastern Christianity written between 375 and 380 AD, gave it as a rule that churches should have the sanctuary (with apse and sacristies) at the east end, to enable Christians to pray eastward in church as in private or in small groups.