By Deacon Charles Joiner
Facing East is an ancient tradition, grounded in sure knowledge about the Second Coming, first told us by the Lord, and then repeated by an angel after the disciples had just seen the Lord ascend into heaven:
“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27)
“…Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
We believe that our Lord ascended on the Mount of Olives, and when He comes back, He will come on a cloud from the East. Therefore, we face East when we pray.
There are other important biblical references to the East. The following is a NON-comprehensive list:
The wise men saw signs of the imminent birth of Christ from the East: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Mat 2:1-2)
Ezekiel saw the “glory of the Lord” when facing East: “And the glory of the Lord came into the house, by the way of the gate looking eastward:” (Ezekiel 43:4)
The Jews faced Eastward during their worship: “And if the prince should prepare as a thanksgiving a whole-burnt-peace-offering to the Lord, and should open for himself the gate looking eastward, and offer his whole-burnt-offering, and his peace-offerings, as he does on the sabbath-day; then shall he go out, and shall shut the doors after he has gone out.” (Ezekiel 46:12) There are lots of references in the Fathers to prayer facing East (see the end of this essay for an excerpt from St John of Damascus concerning this.) It has been a uniform part of our tradition since BEFORE Apostolic times.
Here is what Saint John of Damascus says:
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the Mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit. Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be. So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.
“CONCERNING WORSHIP TOWARDS THE EAST” – EXPOSITION OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH By St. John of Damascus, Book IV, chapter 12