4

Many of the old churches including Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox ones face east. My question is: Was the tradition of construction of churches facing east, a product of certain beliefs, or was it based on scriptures? Are there any references in scriptures that one would like to quote in support of the tradition? Inputs from any denomination are welcome.

2

The idea of facing east as one prays is very old. Basically, it sources to scripture.

Luke 1:78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

The word dayspring is "sun-rising, or branch. Num 24:17; Isa 11:1; Zec 3:8; Zec 6:12; Mal 4:2; Rev 22:16". See here.

In two spots, Justin Martyr (JM) mentions Zech. 6:12, translating the "The Branch" as East (sun-rising).

Zech. 6:12 and thou shalt say to him, Thus saith the Lord Almighty; Behold the man whose name is The Branch; and he shall spring up from his stem, and build the house of the Lord.

Justin Martyr DwT CXXI and CVI

And again, Zechariah says, ‘His name is the East.

Irenaeus, circa 180 AH, Book V, Chapter XXXV

For thy name shall for ever be called by God Himself, the peace of righteousness and glory to him that worships God. Arise, Jerusalem, stand on high, and look towards the east, and behold thy sons from the rising of the sun, even to the west, by the Word of that Holy One, rejoicing in the very remembrance of God.

Clement of Alexandria circa 200 (about also the time of Irenaeus) in his Stromata Chapter VII says this about facing east.

And since the dawn is an image of the day of birth, and from that point the light which has shone forth at first from the darkness increases, there has also dawned on those involved in darkness a day of the knowledge of truth. In correspondence with the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east. Whence also the most ancient temples looked towards the west, that people might be taught to turn to the east when facing the images. “Let my prayer be directed before Thee as incense, the uplifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice,” say the Psalms.

I would remark, however, the Leo the Great circa 450 in Sermon XXVII lamented this practice happening because it could so easily be misunderstood.

IV. The foolish practice of some who turn to the sun and bow to it is reprehensible. From such a system of teaching proceeds also the ungodly practice of certain foolish folk who worship the sun as it rises at the beginning of daylight from elevated positions: even some Christians think it is so proper to do this that, before entering the blessed Apostle Peter’s basilica, which is dedicated to the One Living and true God, when they have mounted the steps which lead to the raised platform819, they turn round and bow themselves towards the rising sun and with bent neck do homage to its brilliant orb. We are full of grief and vexation that this should happen, which is partly due to the fault of ignorance and partly to the spirit of heathenism: because although some of them do perhaps worship the Creator of that fair light rather than the Light itself, which is His creature, yet we must abstain even from the appearance of this observance: for if one who has abandoned the worship of gods, finds it in our own worship, will he not hark back again to this fragment of his old superstition, as if it were allowable, when he sees it to be common both to Christians and to infidels?

As well, scripture mentions Christ's Second Coming as arising from east to west. So, look to the east.

Matthew 24:27

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Later, there was other traditions about the reasons for praying to the east.

Synod of Trullo 692 Canon XCII

The unwritten traditions which he mentions, are the signing those who hope in Christ with the Cross; praying toward the East, to denote, that we are in quest of Eden, that garden in the East from whence our first parents were ejected (as he afterwards explains it),

So, those are the reasons for facing east from scripture and tradition. As Leo mentioned, just be careful not to give the impression of an ungodly practice.

  • You might want to also add that the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, and the Temple at Jerusalem all faced east. – Birdie Mar 15 '18 at 20:12
2

The main Christian dominations that have churches facing East are the Anglican Church, Roman Catholic and Orthodox. However this tradition was not totally universal in its' usage because of the fact that some churches were the result of pre-existing buildings being converted into churches, or because of some other local reason, such as the direction of streets and so on.

Five years before he became Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that, notwithstanding various liturgical innovations, “one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” As he wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us. - Facing East

Let us not forget what the Gospels have to say about Christ's second coming:

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. - Matthew 24: 27

Cathedral oriented to the East

Cathedral oriented to the East

The first Christians faced east when praying, for which various explanations have been offered. In a tradition well established by the time of Christ, Jews in the diaspora would pray facing Jerusalem, which in most of the Roman Empire would have been to the East. Another explanation is that Christ's Second Coming would be on the clouds coming from the East: "For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." (Matthew 24:27). Due to this eastward posture of prayer, Tertullian (c. 160 — c. 220) says that some non-Christians thought they worshipped the sun. Origen (c. 185 — 253) says: "The fact that [...] of all the quarters of the heavens, the east is the only direction we turn to when we pour out prayer, the reasons for this, I think, are not easily discovered by anyone." Later on, various Fathers of the Church advanced mystical reasons for the custom.

At first, the orientation of the building in which Christians met was unimportant, but after the legalization of the religion in the fourth century, customs developed in this regard. These differed in East and West.

The Apostolic Constitutions, a work of eastern Christianity written between 375 and 380 AD, gave it as a rule that churches should have the sanctuary (with apse and sacristies) at the east end, to enable Christians to pray eastward in church as in private or in small groups. In the middle of the sanctuary was the altar, behind which was the bishop's throne, flanked by the seats of the presbyters, while the laity were on the opposite side. However, even in the East there were churches (for example, in Tyre) that had the entrance at the east end and the sanctuary at the west end. During the readings all looked towards the readers, the bishop and presbyters looking westward, the people eastward. The Apostolic Constitutions, like the other documents that speak of the custom of praying towards the east, do not indicate on which side of the altar the bishop stood for "the sacrifice".

The importance attached to orientation of churches declined after the 15th century. In his instructions on the building and arrangement of churches, Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan from 1560 to 1584, expressed a preference for having the apse point exactly east, but accepted that, where that is impractical, a church could be built even on a north-south axis, preferably with the façade at the southern end. He stated that the altar can also be at the west end, where "in accordance with the rite of the Church it is customary for Mass to be celebrated at the main altar by a priest facing the people". - Orientation of churches

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains the Orientation of Churches as thus:

According to Tertullian (155-240) the Christians of his time were, by some who concerned themselves with their form of worship, believed to votaries of the sun. This supposition, he adds, doubtless arose from the Christian practice of turning to the east when praying (Apol., c. xvi). Speaking of churches the same writer tells us that the homes "of our dove", as he terms them, are always in "high and open places, facing the light" (Adv. Val., c. iii), and the Apostolic Constitutions (third to fifth century) prescribe that church edifices should be erected with their "heads" towards the East (Const. Apost., II, 7).

The practice of praying while turned towards the rising sun is older than Christianity, but the Christians in adopting it were influenced by reasons peculiar to themselves. The principal of these reasons, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, was that the Orient contained man's original home, the earthly paradise. St. Thomas Aquinas, speaking for the Middle Ages, adds to this reason several others, as for example, that Our Lord lived His earthly life in the East, and that from the East He shall come to judge mankind (II-II, Q. lxxxiv, a. 3). Thus from the earliest period the custom of locating the apse and altar in the eastern extremity of the church was the rule. Yet the great Roman Basilicas of the Lateran, St. Peter's, St. Paul's (originally), St. Lorenzo's, as well as the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem and the basilicas of Tyre and Antioch, reversed this rule by placing the apse in the western extremity. The reasons for this mode of orientation can only be conjectured. Some writers explain it by the fact that in the fourth century the celebrant at Mass faced the people, and, therefore in a church with a western apse, looked towards the East when officiating at the altar. Others conjecture that the peculiar orientation of the basilicas mentioned, erected by Constantine the Great or under his influence, may have been a reminiscence of the former predilection of this emperor for sun-worship. In the Orient the eastern apse was the rule, and thence it made its way to the West through the reconstructed Basilica of St. Paul's, the Basilica of S. Pietro in Vincoli, and the celebrated basilica of Ravenna. From the eighth century the propriety of the eastern apse was universally admitted, though, of course strict adherence to this architectural canon, owing to the direction of city streets, was not always possible.

As a side note: This question reminds me of the hymn (Christmas carol), People look East by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965).

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.