Why We Orthodox Christians Face East in Our Worship
We Orthodox Christians collectively worship facing east. Together with our bishops and priests, we all stand before the Lord in the direction of the east. Our priests are sort of like captains of a ship, looking towards the ocean and leading the crew on a voyage. The priest (and bishop) lead the people in prayer and worship not as the center of attention, for all are gazing in the same direction, together as the Body of Christ. Together we all gather as one body, while the priest offers the sacrifice of praise on our behalf, as the Divine Liturgy is served before the Lord of Hosts.
The celebrant (bishop or priest) stands before the holy table (altar), facing God, while facing the people only when reading the Gospel, delivering the sermon, or when blessing his people. This is similar to the Jewish pattern of worship and preaching, for like the Jews, we consider it rude to speak to someone with your back to them. So we would dare not face God when worshiping Him.
An Orthodox church is built facing true east when possible, but when building in an area where it would be impossible because of limitation or necessity, liturgically it still faces the East and looks toward God.
This ancient Tradition comes down to us for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, we believe our Lord will return triumphantly from the East (Matthew 24:27 and Acts 1:11). We also recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as the Sun of Righteousness (Malachi 4:2) is the light who illumines all mankind. Thus, because the sun rises in the East, so too will Christ.
We also recognize the paradise of Eden, is in the East (Genesis 2:8), and we remember the perfect communion Adam and Eve experienced with God there, and we look eagerly toward it every time we worship God. Even the mercy seat in the tabernacle of testimony faced East (Leviticus 16:14), and the temple of Solomon’s Gate of the Lord was placed eastward
Numerous Old Testament references toward the East clearly saw this Eastern orientation as distinguishing the Israelites from all the pagan religions, who faced other directions. Many Fathers of the early Christian Church also reference facing East during prayer and worship. Saint John of Damascus is perhaps the most well-known Father to have explained this part of our Holy Tradition. Essentially, this shows that facing East has been a uniform part of Christian worship since the beginning of the Church, something it inherited from Jewish worship.
Each time we Orthodox Christians worship facing East we do so in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ. We know our true home is in the paradise of Eden with God. Therefore, it should not be only in our churches where we face East, but even in our homes. This is why we have the Tradition of placing our personal prayer corners in our homes facing East. We face God when we worship Him, as we eagerly await His triumphant return.
With love in Christ,
About the author
Fr. Tryphon is the Abbot of the Monastery of the All-Merciful Saviour, which was established in 1986 by Archimandrite Dimitry (Egoroff) of blessed memory. The Monastery is under the omophore of His Eminence Kyrill, Archbishop of San Francisco and Western America, of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.