Why do we turn to the East while we pray ? Can we not pray in any direction ? Since God is present every where and can hear our prayer, is it really necessary that we turn to a particular direction while praying?
Jews who live anywhere outside the holy city of Jerusalem traditionally turn to the direction of Jerusalem in Palestine ( modern Israel) for prayer, Muslims anywhere in the world will turn to Ka’aba, the sacred black stone in Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the prescribed hours of prayer. Christians from very ancient times used to turn to the direction of the rising sun for public prayer. For Christians in the western world this tradition is nearly lost. However all Christians belonging to the Eastern (Orthodox ) Christian churches still maintain this venerable practice of turning to the East for the public act of the community worship.
In the Christian church, we make a distinction between the personal prayer of an individual and the public worship of the Christian Community. An individual is free to pray any time, in any direction and in any posture. In fact, Christ and and the Apostles encouraged the practice of “unceasing prayer”. One can pray while taking a bath, playing or eating. One can maintain the mood of prayer through out the day. This kind of continuous prayer of an individual has no fixed form or style or words. This could be done mostly in silence or with words one chooses or with the help of ancient prayers like the famous ” Jesus Prayer”. This can be practiced without engaging our conscious mind at all. This is essentially the practice of the presence of God every moment of our earthly life.
But public worship is different in its form and style. It is a community prayer in which many individuals together constitute one body, an expression of the body of Christ, the Church. They are not an ad-hoc community, but they continue the unbroken tradition of worshipping the Triune God from the time of the Apostles onwards. The best example of this kind of public worship is the Eucharistic liturgy or Holy Qurbana. In public worship we turn to East, the direction of the rising sun.
The Apostles of Christ were all Jews. The early disciples of Christ in Palestine were mostly Jews. They prayed like other Jews. Soon however, Christians developed their own prayers addressed to Christ as the saviour.
Because of a new spiritual awareness in the early Christian community, Christians developed a detachment to physical places like Jerusalem. Their absorbing concern was with the “Heavenly Jerusalem” and the way to reach that abiding spiritual city. All places on earth were the same for them. No place was particularly sacred. So the early Christian community gradually moved away from the Jewish orientation to the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. At the same time a new sense of direction emerged in Christian worship, namely the direction of the rising sun.
This eastward direction developed in Christianity has a strong biblical basis:
1. In the biblical story of creation we read: ” And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed ( Gen. 2:8). Eventually Adam and Eve, after their act of disobedience were sent out from the Garden of Eden in the East. According to Christian interpretation, since the time of this expulsion of the first parents by the eastern gate of paradise (=garden), all children of Adam and Eve look back to their lost home, the paradise in the East, with a deep sense of spiritual home sickness. So salvation is understood partly as a return to the original home.
2. The prophets foretold the coming of Jesus as the Messiah in symbolic and figurative language. The New Testament writers interpreted these prophecies as having been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. For example the prophecy of Malachi. ” But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” ( 4: 2). So looking to the East stands for our earnest waiting for the coming of Christ, the healer and saviour of the world.
3. Jesus said: ” I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” ( St. John 8:12) Light is the source of life. On our planet earth, all life depends on the light of the sun. But the physical sun in our solar system sustains only biological life in plants, animals, and human beings. This life will eventually die. The sun as a star will ultimately die as well. In the spiritual realm, Jesus is the eternal sun. He is the source and sustainer of all life, both biological and spiritual. He is ” the true light that enlightens every human being” ( St. John, 1:9 ).
Therefore we symbolically turn to the direction of the rising sun to receive the light of the risen Christ. Christ is also called ” the bright morning star” ( Rev. 22:16) He inaugurated the new age of the Kingdom of God. As the dawn breaks, the eastern horizon brightens up with beautiful colours. We turn to the beauty and brilliance of God’s light as we praise the triune God facing east.
4. A popular Christian belief developed in the course of time that in the Second Coming, Christ would come from the East. The basis of this tradition is the Gospel reference ( Matt. 24:27) that the coming of the Son of Man would be like lightening that shines from the east to the west.
So, turning to the east stands for our final preparation to receive Christ when he comes for the last Judgment of the world. Thus the east symbolizes our spiritual wakefulness, our readiness to give account of our life and our hope in the transfiguration of all creation in Christ our Lord.
This biblical, Christ centered tradition of the church of turning to the east in prayer is part of the rich heritage of the Orthodox church. We build our churches in the east-west direction. The whole congregation together with the priest turns to east in remembrance of all that God grants us from the time of our creation in Paradise to the fulfillment of all in the Second coming of Christ. The bodies of our beloved departed faithful are laid to rest facing the east with the hope of resurrection and meeting Jesus face to face.
Turning to the East, of course is a symbolic act. We know that East and West, South and North have no physical and geographical significance in the age of space travel in a Tran terrestrial cosmic frame. Yet it is a deeply spiritual symbol and a most beautiful one in the whole of Christian tradition. In special situations when the place or building where we worship happens to be inconvenient for the traditional orientation of the community, we are free to turn to any suitable direction. The sense of the east gives the right ” orientation” ( from the world Orient + East ) for our earthly life in the midst of suffering, doubt, and spiritual disorientation. In any case, it is only wise to keep this ancient tradition in its right spirit.