ORIENTATION TOWARD THE EAST
Since the early days of Christianity, the east has been the point designated to be faced during prayers, both by the officiating priest and by the congregation. This has to be taken into account in building a church, so the altar must be placed in the eastern end, with the longer axis of the church running east to west. The APOSTOLIC CONSTITUTIONS prescribe that “all rise up with one consent and, looking toward the east . . . , pray to God eastward.” Al-Safi ibn al-‘Assal, the thirteenth-century compiler of Coptic canon law, stated that “the congregation stand with their hands lifted up towards Heaven, and their faces directed towards the east.”
The theological significance of the orientation toward the east is stressed at the beginning of the liturgy where the deacon directs the congregation to stand up and look toward the east, “to witness the Body and Blood of Emmanuel, our Lord, placed on the altar.” The east is also associated with the sun of righteousness “arising from the east with healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2) and with the Second Coming of Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead.
This was described by Christ in the following terms: “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” (Mt. 24:27). When worshipers face the east, they affirm their anticipation of the last advent, in accordance with the words of the two angels to the disciples of Jesus at the time of His ascension, “This same Jesus, Who is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into Heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The same subject has been treated by various church authorities throughout the ages. Saint BASIL THE GREAT links it with the ancient homeland of man in Paradise, “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” (De Spiritu Sancto, p. 27). Saint EPHRAEM the Syrian (306-373) writes that “The Jews looked to Jerusalem in their prayers, for it was their holy country. As for us, the Paradise is our country which was in the East.
Therefore we are ordered to look towards the East during our prayers.” Saint GREGORY OF NYSSA (c. 330-395) considers the matter from a particular angle: “Such motion of orientation helps the soul to repent and seek the kingdom of God in her worship.”
If the East stands for righteousness and light, the West is associated with ungodliness and darkness. Consequently, at the moment of the renunciation of Satan during baptism in the Coptic Church, the person to be baptized is required to look toward the West, and stretch out his right hand and say, “I renounce thee, Satan.” Then he turns toward the East and, stretching both hands, says, “I join myself to Thee, Christ.”
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt. 2 vols. Oxford, 1884.
- Daniélou, J. The Bible and the Liturgy. Notre Dame, Ind., 1956.