Sunday, 14 May 2017

Why Face East ?

From "The Pilot", 1968 comes this, an interesting historical ramble. 

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Why Face East ?

In Rome, for so many centuries the heart of Western Christendom, and in the temple at Jerusalem, the faithful faced west when they worshipped, turning towards the altar. In St. Peter's, Rome, the main entrance is at the east end, and the chancel still lies westwards.

But if the altar, following the custom of the God-fearing Jews, and the most convenient adapting of secular Roman buildings, was in the west in some early Italian churches, the celebrant at such an altar seems sometimes at least to have faced not West but East.

Since the Reformation in England it has quite often been contended that celebrants should still, following this early practice, face towards the congregation, as Christ faced the Apostles, showing them all that he did.

But although on the grounds of this analogy a case - and even a legal case-might be again made for such a change, there was at least as strong a second symbolism which led the priest to face the East.

Indeed, in the second symbolism, the East exerted so strong an attraction that, like a magnetic pole, it drew to itself both priest and altar, and re-orientated (literally polarized in an easterly direction) both the living and the dead.

For at least from the third century, in the `new' northern lands of Gaul and beyond, not only were churches built with their altars at the East end and the worshippers facing eastward, but also the Christian dead were buried in the churchyard with their feet facing towards the East. The Christian Church had succeeded in interpreting for Christ the mighty pagan pull of the East.

For, from the very early times, the East had been invested with a certain sacred character. It had been held in higher respect than other points of the compass. Wherever the sun was worshipped, altars were faced towards its rising, the point of its re-birth and of its victory over the dark. `And Christ,' said Clement of Alexandria, `is the Sun of righteousness, the Dayspring from on high, the Morning Star.'

Christians looked to the East because it had become a symbol of Christ's resurrection. It was the symbol of Easter, a Teutonic word itself incapsulating `east' and being the feast of Eostre or Ostara, the goddess of Spring and of the re-birth of light, whose feast days fell in the `Eosturmonadh' of April, as the Venerable Bede recounts.

Christians also looked to the east because it symbolized Christ's second coming to judge both the living and the dead. Since also, traditionally, Christ and the end of the world should come to Jerusalem, and the early Church spread mainly to the west of Palestine, to look eastward towards the second coming was to look in the very roughly correct geographical direction of Jerusalem.

So Christian eyes were focused towards the Holy City, as were those of the Jews dispersed throughout the western world, and later would be focused the eyes of the Muslim world before Mecca became the first direction of prayer. But still, for Islam as for Jewry, it is in Jerusalem that the end of the world will come.

By contrast with the East, the West became the end of the old world and of death. So St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century reminds a former catechumen how that, after he had faced West to renounce the devil and all his works, and vanities and pomps, `then it was bidden thee to turn to the East, the region of light, and to say, "I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one baptism of repentance".' This seems to have been common to many ancient baptismal forms.

It is the same pull and avowal of belief which still turns professing Christians to the East when they say the Creed.

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