Why Face East for Prayer and Worship?
God is Omnipresent! God can hear our prayer from, wherever we pray. Is there a need to face any direction or have a posture, for prayer?
Man is not merely a praying mind. The human senses influence the soul and are subject to influence, too. For example, we pray and direct our eyes upward while God is present everywhere but looking up creates in our hearts spiritual feelings which give our prayers a particular depth. The same is true when we face the East, we are also reminded that on more than one occasion, Jesus lifted His eyes upward even though He is in Father and the Father is in Him.
Prayer facing East is a strong tradition of our Church, from the early period. There are references in the Apostolic Constitution, Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, and other Patristic writing regarding facing East for prayer. St. Clement, St. Origen, St. Basil, Terttullian, and our early Church Fathers also advocated such a practice, as they regarded East as a more important and higher place than West.
We do learn that in Jerusalem, the Jews always turned their faces toward the ‘holy hill’ of the temple while praying (2 Chron. 6: 34). Daniel, while praying in exile, opened his window toward Jerusalem (Dan. 6: 10). In the court of the temple, the Jews in prayer faced the Temple itself (1 Kings 8: 38).
There are many references in the Bible showing the importance of east.
1. The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden (Gen. 2: 8) and put man there. This was the abode of Man before sin and here stood, the Tree of Life stood. The paradise in Eden is a symbol of the paradise we look forward to. Turning towards the East, we face the Garden of Eden, which was the paradise, from where we were thrown out for our sin, which we committed against the Lord. By facing towards this Paradise, we look towards our destination, to be with God in His Paradise. We face and pray towards this paradise to symbolize our need for repentance and to seek the Kingdom of God in all its Glory. We remind ourselves that we have to turn to God our Creator, regain the joyful communion and return to fellowship with our Heavenly father, which existed before Paradise was lost. Thus, facing East has become a symbol of man’s looking forward to paradise (which was taken away by sin) and a symbol of his looking forward to the Tree of Life. St. Basil the Great says, “It is according to an unwritten tradition that we turn to the East to pray. But little do we know that we are thus seeking the ancient homeland, the Paradise that God planted in Eden, towards the East.”
2. We also note that Christ was born in the East, and that the Magi saw His star in the East (Matt. 2: 2). This star was an indication of divine guidance which, when followed by the Magi, lead them to the Lord. This is truly a beautiful meditation. The star in the East led the Wise Men to Christ, we also face the East, to allow our hearts to reach Christ, to be one with him as we anticipate the communion of His Holy Body and Blood, that through this spiritual direction we can come to Him and worship at his feet, offering our hearts just as the wise men offered their precious gifts. The wise men traveled from faraway lands, in the direction of the shining star, going through much toil and trouble to reach the Saviour. Like these wise men, we also may go through many hardships and spiritual struggles to meet the Lord, hoping that there will be signs in the East at His Second Coming, as there was at the time of His birth.
3. Before the creation of Man, God made a source of light, and God saw that the light was good. This ‘eastward coming’ made synonymous ‘the appearance in the east’ with ‘the giving of light’. The sun was created on the fourth day before the creation of man on the sixth day (Gen. 1). This physical source sustains the biological life on the Earth, but one day the physical sun will die off. But Jesus Christ, the Light of the World (John 8: 12), our eternal source and sustainer of our life, is the One True Light that will give light to every man. The rising of the sun is a symbol of Christ and His light, for the Lord is called ‘the Sun of Righteousness’ and “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4: 2). The Prophet foretells the coming of Jesus in a figurative language. So, we look to East in Prayer, awaiting the coming of Our Lord, Saviour and Healer.
4. The Holy Bible also speaks much of the glory of God in the East. We note that the God of Israel came from the East. (Ez. 43: 1-2). The glory of God entered the Temple by the Gate facing the east. (Ez. 43: 4). In Isaiah 24: 15 we read, “therefore glorify the Lord in the dawning light“. These prophecies stand true as the prophecies of the coming of Christ in His glory in the East.
5. The ever Virgin, the mother of Christ was likened to a gate facing toward the East (Ez. 44: 1, 20). The Gate facing East shall be open for Worship for Him (Ez. 46: 12). So beautiful is talking about the east and quite sweet are the memories it kindles. The prophet Ezekiel (47:1-9) speaks about “rivers of life in the East”, and in (2 Kings 13:17) we read about “the arrow of the Lord’s deliverance”, and in Isaiah 24:15 “glorify the Lord in the dawning light.”
6. We believe that the Second Coming of our Lord shall be in the East and He Who “was taken up…into heaven, will come in just the same way…” (Acts 1: 11). In a prophecy of Zachariah (14: 3-4) we read “And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the East.” As Christians, our main goal is waiting and becoming prepared for the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. His Second Coming marks the beginning of life with him to those who are watchful. In Matthew 24: 27 the Lord says, “For as the lightening comes from the East and shines on the West, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be,” by this we understand that Christ in all his Glory will come to judge the world from the East. We anticipate this coming as the end of our journey in order to reach our final destination of being with him.
7. Jesus Christ was crucified in the East, and there He spilled His Blood for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole world. Thus, we find that salvation had come to the world from the East. Both Christianity as a religion and the Holy Church originated in the East. This was one point brought about by St. Athanasius, that Jesus Christ was hung on the cross facing the West, and the Mother of God, few disciples, other ladies and faithful were kneeling under the cross with deep silence, meditating under the cross, facing East. We the sinners look towards the East; we meet and speak with the Lord face to face, asking him to forgive us of our sins for which he died in order to save us. We can say that first assembly of Church after the death of Jesus, prayed facing towards East. There too, we find Jerusalem, the city of the great King, and in it the first Church in the whole world was established and the blood of the first martyr of Christianity was shed.
8. Our Church puts this as symbolism for many signs of worship to the Lord. Not only that it is a spiritual practice, but it is traditional as well, taken from the rites of the Early Fathers. In the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (vol. 2, page 5 and 32), St. John of Zebedee “took a cross of wood and placed it up towards the East and kneeled and was praying.”
9. In addition, earlier recordings of the lives of Martyrs and Saints tell us that whenever possible, the martyrs and saints would face their bodies towards the East as their souls departed to heaven. St. Makrina, on her death bed asked her brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa to bury her facing East. We also bury our departed facing East, so that with the resurrection they can meet Jesus face to face.
9. Among other traditions, the Liturgy of Baptism even in the early Church would have the catechumen renounce the Devil, and all his works, facing west and then face the East and confess his belief in the Holy Trinity. In our Church’s office of baptism, the baptized and his godparent look to the west to rebuke and renounce Satan. Then they look to the east to recite the creed. In this way the baptized moves from west to east, that is, from darkness to light.
10. So we build our Churches East–West and we pray facing the East. This is because the East directs our hearts to meditations, which we cherish and adore because God has given the East a lot of importance. Our Churches are in East–West direction, with the main entrance of the building at the West end. This symbolizes the entrance of the worshipper from the darkness of sin (the West) into the light of truth (the East). The Priest and the congregation, all worship facing East. As we look to the East, we face the altar in the East where Christ was made a sacrifice and became our Passover and as the Old Israel looked to Jerusalem for prayer (Daniel 6: 57), we (the New Israel) look to Calvary in the East to pray.
11. Other records are available that, Christians in Syria, in the second century, placed the cross in the direction of the East or on the walls in the East, towards which people in their homes or Churches prayed.
12. So we turn to the East to the direction of the Rising Sun, to receive the Light of the Risen Christ, the Bright Morning Star (Rev. 22: 16). We see Christ as our East, in that the sun rises from the East. The sun is the source of our life and so Christ is our salvation, the source of our life in the spirit. Without Him, we can not see the light for our path to heaven. He is our heavenly direction to which we look upon for guidance and support. His light will lead us to everlasting life if we choose to abide by life through him. With this thought, we use the East to symbolize who we are talking to.
The direction to which Christians prayed, symbolized their souls facing God, talking with him, and sharing their spirituality with the Lord. These traditions were not just traditions but symbolized many things in their meditations of the Father. In most of these Churches or buildings, extra effort, time, and money must be placed to turn these buildings around to face the East. This shows our belief and faith within the timeless traditions handed down to us from the apostles. Memories indeed influence the heart and exert spiritual effects on the soul. When Daniel challenged the pagan worship, he went to his upper room to pray, opened the window facing Jerusalem and knelt and prayed. True, God is present everywhere, but facing the east has a deep meaning, a profound influence on the heart and memories that bring forth holy feelings. We turn to East for prayer and worship to keep alive the rich spiritual heritage and ancient tradition of our Church. Our saints and holy fathers guided by Holy Spirit taught us to pray facing East.
May the Light of His face shine upon us and enlighten us with the Light of His divine knowledge. Let us pray that He make us children of His light, children of daytime. Every time we stand up for prayers towards the East, let us remember the beginning of our new life that we have obtained in baptism. With this prayer, let our hopes are renewed with every sunrise.