East Facing?

“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:

Canon XCII.

He speaks of the written doctrine, and the unwritten tradition of the Apostles, and says, that both have the same efficacy as to religion.  The unwritten traditions which he mentions, are the signing those who hope in Christ with the Cross; praying toward the East, to denote, that we are in quest of Eden,…

This canon speaks very clearly of certain unwritten traditions (facing towards the east to pray being one) of the Church being “ dogma full of authority, venerable for its antiquity”.  

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.

BOWING TOWARD THE EAST, a practice in the early Christian churches. “Its origin is thus stated: The sun being a symbol of Christ, the place of its rising was a fitting though imaginary representation of heaven, whence Christ descended, and to which he ascended in glory as the mediator between God and man. The heathens charged the Christians with worshipping the rising sun; but St. Augustine repudiates such an idea when he says, ‘We turn to the east, whence the heavens, or the light of heaven arises, not as if God was only there, and had forsaken all other parts of the world, but to put ourselves in mind of turning to a more excellent nature, that is, to the Lord.’

 M’Clintock, J., & Strong, J. (1880). Bowing toward the East. In Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 1, p. 865). New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers.

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