Why do we worship facing east?
The tradition of Christians facing east to worship is ancient and was universally accepted in the time of Saint Basil the Great (fourth century). There are many reasons why we worship eastwards.
The Old Testament Tabernacle
In worshipping east we recall the orientation of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. This portable tent-like structure that contained the Ark of the Covenant accompanied the Hebrews on their forty-year journey through the wilderness. Every time it was pitched, the tabernacle was aligned on the east-west axis with the gate at the east end.
It is not compulsory, however, for Orthodox churches to be aligned this way. For example, it might not be possible to have the iconostasis and Holy Table at the east end of a house chapel due to the design of the building. Even in nineteenth century Russia this situation actually occurred relatively frequently. The vital thing is that we all face the same direction in church – whether we are facing geographical east is less important. We will discus this point further later on.
Nevertheless, there are important symbolic reasons why nearly all Orthodox churches are built on the east-west axis with the Holy Table at the east end of the church. In addition, we put icons on the east wall of our room so that we face towards the east when we say our private prayers.
God is Light
We read in the First Epistle of Saint John that ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). Christ is also called ‘Sun of Righteousness’ (Mal. 4:2) and the ‘Dayspring from on High’ (Luke 1:78) The word ‘Dayspring’ means ‘east’ in Greek and is sometimes translated as ‘orient’. We pray eastwards because the sun rises in the east and also as a reminder that 'every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights' (James 1:17).
The Ascension and the Second Coming of Christ
St. John of Damascus teaches that ‘when Christ ascended into Heaven, He was borne towards the East, and He will come again in the way’. This explanation is based on the words of the angel to the disciple record in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). We therefore face east in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ as He Himself said: ‘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).
Paradise of Eden
In the Book of Genesis we read that the ‘Lord planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had created’ (Gen. 2:8) and man was banished ‘over against the garden of delight’ (Gen. 3:24) that is, to the west. This Eden has now been opened again by the birth of Christ as we hear in the matins service for the Nativity of Christ: ‘Bethlehem has opened Eden: come, and let us see. We have the joy in secret: come, and let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave’. We face east when we pray because we seek to enter Paradise our ancient fatherland.
The Body of Christ
Orthodox churches are built so that the sanctuary (the area behind the iconostasis) is at the east end of the church meaning that priest and people face east during worship. We all face in the same direction because we are all members of the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27) and worship together. In western churches the layout of the church is very different.
In most Protestant churches the altar table is not that important because Protestants do not accept the sacraments or the traditional historical church. For this reason, the pulpit (the raised stand used for preaching) is centrally placed in many older Protestant churches (right). In newer churches both the pulpit and the altar table are absent (below).
The altar table is central in Roman Catholic churches but the priest faces the people. This practice started in the 1960s to make worshippers feel more connected to the worship. Previously, priests served facing east and the services were said in Latin. We could probably say that in Roman Catholic worship the priest prays instead of the people rather than with them. A Roman Catholic priest, for example, can serve the mass (holy communion service) without a congregation being present. This is unknown in Orthodoxy.
Apart from the priest, at least one Orthodox person must be present at every Divine Liturgy to sing the responses on behalf of the people. In the Orthodox Church we worship together because we believe together. We hold the correct faith and we hold on to our correct worship; praying together, facing east, is part of the tradition of the Church of Christ to which we belong.