Al Mu'allaqah - Old Cairo

Why We Face the EAST…

Written by
Tony Kalleeny
St Mary and Archangel Michael Church
Orlando, Florida

Many times as we sit in church and observe the many rituals and practices we perform in our Coptic Church, we ask ourselves how these practices started or why we do such things. Other times, we do the practices blindly forgetting or even not paying attention to the true meaning behind this system the church has set up for us.

"Communicating with God is distinguished by its intimate nature. It takes place right within the hearts, where we meet our closest and hidden Friend who dwells in our inner souls. It is, by nature, a ceaseless contact that is not bound by time nor place; at home, on the road, at work, at church…etc. However, this reality must also be coupled with the fact that our God likes discipline and does not like disorder. Thus, during our worship whether at His church or at home, we are expected to observe order and discipline." This excerpt by Father Tadros Yacoub from his book The Church, House of God explains one reason why we observe many of the traditions and rituals in our church. This is all brought down to help explain the spiritual and traditional reasons why we face the East.

Coptic Church buildings around the world, all have one thing in common: they all face the East. Our church puts this as symbolism for many signs of worship to the Lord. Not only is it 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." 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. Among other traditions, the Liturgy of Baptism in the early church would have the believer renounce the Devil and all his works, then face the East and confess his belief in the Holy Trinity.

Christians in Syria as well, in the second century, would place the cross in the direction of the East towards which people in their homes or churches prayed. 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 the United States many Coptic congregations have bought buildings or used churches from other denominations in order to pray in them. 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. We do not want to lose our way of worship to the carelessness of the world.
There are many symbols and reasons why we face the East. Six reasons will be listed and their meanings meditated upon.
    1. Christ is our 'East':

    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. In church, our prayers are focused to appeal to God our Savior so that he has mercy on us and dwells in our hearts to cleanse us from the impurities of this world and bring us to life with him.

    2. Reminds us of the lost paradise:

    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."

    Looking towards the East, we are facing the garden of Eden which was the paradise we were thrown out of in order to live up to 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.

    3. Waiting for the Advent of Christ (Parousia):

    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.

    4. Symbol of Rebirth, Hope, and Light:

    Every time we stand up for prayers towards the East, we remember the beginning of our new life that we have obtained in baptism. And just as we pray in the Prime prayers:

    Let us enjoy a fresh start…..
    May the light of your face shine upon us,
    And enlighten us with the light of your divine knowledge
    Make us children of light, children of daytime…
    Enlighten our minds, hearts and our
    understanding, O Lord of all…

    With this prayer, our hopes are renewed with every sunrise.

    5. Looking towards the Cross:

    One point brought about by St. Athanasius was that Christ was hung on the cross facing the West, and by us the sinners looking 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.

    6. Star leading the Wise Men:

    Just as the star coming from the East led the Wise Men to Christ, so also we face the East in order 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 far away lands, going through much toil and trouble to reach the Savior. Like these three kings, we also may go through many hardships and spiritual struggles to meet the Lord.

As we have read, the East symbolizes and represents our longing for the salvation. This heavenly direction helps to guide our hearts and our understandings. It not only maintains our traditions and discipline but is set to represent the many meanings through which we should live by to obtain eternal life with the Father. So the next time we are in the Divine Liturgy let us ponder on the many meanings of this simple rite of facing the East and allow it to teach us the true meaning of anticipating the mercy of Christ and looking on him as our refuge and support. We pray that His mercy be with us all and Glory be to God forever. Amen.