HOMILY for the 20th Sat (II)
Eze 43:1-7; Ps 84; Mt 23:1-12
Muslims famously face Mecca when they pray. But what direction do you and I, we Christians, face when we pray? This probably seems a strange question to ask, but it was of great importance to the early Christians. Because worship is not dis-embodied and purely spiritual – we are not angels, after all – but, as human beings, worship and prayer is also bodily, occupying time and space, marked by postures and direction. And so, these cosmological questions mattered: when we prayed, where we prayed, and which direction. If we asked the early Christians, the Fathers of the Church, in what direction they prayed, they would have said that they were orientated, that is, literally ‘east-ed’. Hence Tertullian, writing in 197, stated that Christians pray “in the direction of the rising sun”.
Why? Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, explains that praying towards the rising sun is “an act which symbolizes the soul looking towards where the true light rises”, and, in common with many Fathers of the Church, he believed that this tradition came from Christ and his apostles. In the Liturgy, this meant that the whole assembly turned, if necessary, so that together with the priest, they faced the east. St Augustine, writing over a century after Origen, explained, “We do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth… but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God”. For posture and direction in prayer, indeed, prayer itself, is for our benefit, not God’s. So, the early Christians orientated themselves in prayer as a symbol and a reminder to themselves that their whole person – body and soul, heart and mind – had to be orientated towards God.
The idea that God comes from the east, from the direction of the rising sun, of the light has rather primal origins in sun worship. However, such religious instincts do point toward a profound truth that is fully expressed in the Scriptures. So, we read in Ezekiel’s vision in today’s First Reading: “The glory of the God of Israel came from the east… the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east”. And in the New Testament, Christ becomes identified as the “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2) who, in the words of Zechariah, “visits us like the dawn from on high” (Lk 1:78). So, we turn towards the east, towards the light of truth, and ultimately, towards Christ, “the light of the world” who will return in glory. As St John Damascene said, Christ ascended towards the east “and He will return just as [the apostles] saw Him ascend into heaven… [thus] waiting for Him, we adore him facing east”.
Hence, in the Liturgy, facing east was about waiting for the Lord to return, which, in a sacramental sense, he did in each Eucharist. Even when the practice of actually facing compass east faded away, the Christian liturgical assembly continued altogether to face an image of the Jesus, the “rising sun”; the Crucified One who heralds the dawn of the resurrection. Thus, the altar end of a church is always called the east end, whether or not it is geographically in the east, and we faced the cross in our prayer, orientated together to face the Lord. And this was an important ecumenical position we shared with the eastern Christians, the Orthodox.
This bodily orientation, to my mind, is still important today and it should not be overlooked. But even when St Augustine wrote, he recognized that turning one’s body and facing east was easy enough. Of much more concern to him, and this is no less true today, is the turning of one’s heart to God, of conversion to the Lord. As he put it: “You turn your body around from one cardinal point to another; turn your heart around from one love to another”. Whichever way we face, our prayer and worship must clearly move us towards this re-orientation of our lives so that when we’re asked which direction we face in prayer, we can say we face Christ, “the true light that enlightens every person” (Jn 1:9).