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East window

Architectural Design Guidelines 2

East window
This blog post complements Architectural Design Guidelines 1 by providing some notes around the Christian tradition of orientating church buildings to face East. In some sense, then, you can regard this post as Architectural Design Guidelines 1a – footnotes on church building orientation.

East Window 2I hope this post interests many even though it is driven by preparations to build many church buildings following the Christchurch/Canterbury earthquakes. Commentors here can be assured that I am feeding what is put here through to those who are making the decisions.

Notes are all I will provide here. I acknowledge that this topic is vast – there is no attempt here to cover all.

I also acknowledge the debate about which way the presider should face, versus populum or ad orientem. I do not want us to get distracted here with that discussion – this post is focusing on architecture rather than posture, etc. (not that they are not interrelated…)

  • Do a search of the Bible on the sun as a metaphor; light; Christ as light; Psalm 84:11; 1 John 1:5
  • St Jerome, in his commentary on Ezekiel, has the East gate of the Temple associated with the incarnation. “the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east” (Ezek. 43:2) Only God may enter by the East gate (Ezek 44:2)
  • The prophet Malachi foretold that the “sun of righteousness” would rise (Mal. 4:2). The Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” also invokes Christ as the Oriens, the “Day-Spring” or dawn. [“Orientem” predates the Church. Oriens is the present participle of the verb orire, to rise. Oriens means rising. By extension it is the direction of the rising sun, East.]
  • Another Advent hymn: “People Look East and Sing today, the Lord is on His way!”
  • The Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) describes God’s mercy (the incarnation) as “the dawn [oriens] from on high” which would “shine on those who dwell in darkness”
  • At Christ’s crucifixion the sun was darkened (Luke 23:45)
  • Christ dies towards sunset.
  • Christ dies on the West of Jerusalem.
  • Jesus was buried in the evening. (Matt. 27:57)
  • The Resurrection is associated with the dawn, the rising of the sun. The East – oriens – is a symbol of the resurrection.
  • In Acts 1:9-12 Jesus ascends into heaven from the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem.
  • There is an association between Psalm 67:33-34 (LXX/Vulgate numbering; Psalm 68 Heb numbering, but the Hebrew is different) and the Feast of the Ascension. The Latin Vulgate reads “psallite Deo qui ascendit super caelum caeli ad orientem,” (“Sing to God who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east.”)
  • “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11.
  • Jesus says (Matthew 24:27) “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
  • When Christ returns (Rev 1:16) “his face was like the sun shining with full force.”
  • Facing East in this expectation is, hence, an eschatological orientation. It is an external manifestation of being directed to the Lord, of our hope for His return, for the new dawn and the endless day of Heaven.
  • There is a connection to nature; to the cosmos; all creation
  • John of Damascus is a good source for further research. He writes that while waiting the coming of the Lord, “we adore Him facing East”, for that is the tradition passed down to us from the Apostles.
  • In the early church, baptism, in the night vigil from Holy Saturday to Easter Day, the one to be baptised would have faced West and renounced the darkness, turning to the dawning light in the East. We still use the words of “turning to Christ” in the baptism rite.
  • Genesis 4:16 “Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Banishment and exile are associated with this East/West axis.
  • In the Temple the Holy of holies was in the West – entry was from the East. Christians adopted and reversed Jewish directionalism.
  • Tertullian says Christian church buildings are “always” oriented “toward the light”. Origen says that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking toward the rising of the true light, the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ. Clement of Alexandria, Saint Basil, and Saint Augustine all write about this.
  • In the Coptic Rite of Egypt, in its Eucharistic liturgy, there is the ancient exhortation of the deacon: “Look towards the East!”

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24 thoughts on “Architectural Design Guidelines 2”

  1. “In the early church, baptism, in the night vigil from Holy Saturday to Easter Day, the one to be baptised would have faced West and renounced the darkness, turning to the dawning light in the East. We still use the words of ‘turning to Christ’ in the baptism rite.”

    To this day, in the Byzantine Rite celebration of baptism, the candidate for baptism and his/her sponsors are turned toward the west for the renunciation of Satan, which ends with the presbyter telling them: “Then breathe and spit on him.” Then they are turned toward the east for the acceptance of Christ “as King and as God.”

    1. Thanks, Gregory! I did not know this. Each year I speak to lots of people about baptism. This will now be added to my points. I’m wondering about the “then breathe…on him”? What is the reference there? Blessings.

      1. Gregory Orloff

        I checked, Bosco, and an alternate (and better, IMHO) translation renders it, “Then blow and spit on him” — obviously a gesture showing the desire to drive Satan away and show him contempt.

        Christ is risen!

  2. Our pastor asked us to face east during the renewal of Baptism vows at Easter, and to face west when we rejected sin. So the whole parish had to turn around 180 degrees. I did not do that.

    As a middle-aged, life=long Catholic, I am tired of the “Simon Says” religion antics I learned in grade school. After I read the Bible, from cover to cover, I knew the Holy Spirit is inside of me, and there is no way I can turn where God isn’t. To do otherwise is like, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

    Most of the ritual and symbolism is, I think, for those people that do not know the nature and character of God. It’s easy to go to church and play “Simon Says”, thinking priests and bishops know better than we pew people do, because, after all, one thinks they know the Gold Standard of Measure regarding our Deposit of Faith: the Bible.

    But after all these years, I learned most do not.
    And clergy that *do* know better keep their heads down, trying to blend in with the rest, so as to not rock any boats. I object.

    Where are the St. Peter’s & the St. Paul’s today? Nowhere. Neither would be accepted in a seminary

    1. Thanks, RJ, for your comment which, I think, has important points in it. We would have to agree to disagree when you press your point. I regard gesture and posture as important and helpful. We are not disembodied spirits. Ritual and symbolism has been used precisely by those who “know the nature and character of God” because that “knowledge” lies beyond all knowledge and is often better expressed in ritual and symbolism than in limiting words. Some of the ritual and symbolism has been given to us by God. Blessings.

      1. I think the only real posture for a saved Christian is on our knees.

        Outside of that, it’s ritual; we can stand on our head, and not have that posture be acceptable to a holy God.

        The only ritual and symbolism that a Christian need have, be it given by God, or not, is from the New Testament.

        What I object to is so often, we as Catholics, have one foot in the Old Testament, and one foot in the New Testament. Our whole bodies, souls and spirits must be in the New Testament, completely.

        Like when Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, and she asked about the location of worship between her people and the Jews.

        Jesus responded with what was important: the day will come (and now is) when we worship in Spirit and in TRUTH.

        1. RJ, there is much truth in what you write. But I challenge you, in the New Testament context you write of, how often is the kneeling posture spoken of in the NT? When the first ecumenical council was held, the bishops were shocked to discover Christians who worshipped kneeling on Sunday. Their agreement was that Christian pray standing – especially in these 50 days of celebrating the resurrection, the Easter Season. Blessings.

          1. Thank you for your reply. You asked,
            “But I challenge you, in the New Testament context you write of, how often is the kneeling posture spoken of in the NT?”

            My answer:
            The best reference for me is Luke 22: 41, where it is written of Jesus, “After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed…”

            That is why I like the kneeling posture the best. But any posture is really fine, standing, sitting, kneeling, as long as our hearts are predisposed towards Him. I’m sure we are all on the same page, ultimately. It is of corporate worship on Sunday, where the Body of Christ is all together in one place, where there must be some kind of unity, just for the sake of order.

            I don’t mean my comment to be taken as a quibble, for instance, some people say Communion must be on the tongue, and some, from the hand, and some (believe it or not!) from the left hand, and placed in our mouth from our right hand, or vice versa. It’s like modern day Pharisees!!

            St. Peter prayed the best and shortest, most sincere prayer of all, when he walked on water, for an instant (until he took his focus off of Jesus) when he prayed: “Lord, help me!”

  3. Judy Kallmeyer

    At the beginning of her program, Mother Angelica says “What a wonderful thing is our Church!” I heartily agree. And I love the Church. But I must confess that there are times when the Church has a tendency to “strain at gnats and swallow camels.” This would be one of those instances. I strongly suspect that our dear Lord cares little at all about what direction we face when praying. I believe that His concern is that we DO pray. In speaking with the Samaritan woman in John 4, who is speaking about worship on the mountain vs. in Jerusalem, Jesus says,”Believe Me woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem …the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship Him.” If worship will not be limited to a mountain, or to a city, then why should it be limited to a direction! My goodness, are there not far more important about which to be concerned,such as the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the quality of preaching, the reaching of our young people, seeking out those who have left the Church! Let us stop worrying about the gnats and working at getting rid of the camels.

    1. Thanks, Judy. I obviously agree with your points. There is much on this site about Christ’s presence, the quality of preaching, reaching young people (my primary ministry), seeking those who have left the Church (today’s post). But our diocese has had, as you know, 25 church buildings closed or destroyed. The RC diocese another 20. These 45 buildings belong to communities that do take care about the way we build our worship space, our connection to nature, to the community, etc. There are other communities also who are going to be building new church buildings. If you are arguing churches should not build at all, that is another discussion. Otherwise I make no apology for people who join the discussion about how we might build now – in this case conscious of the planet on which God has placed us. Blessings.

      1. I found your website and this discussion because every day, I scan the “Spirit Daily” links. While some stories are not good, many are quite interesting and timely.

        So I thought you were a Roman Catholic priest here in America. I just perused the rest of your pages, and see that you’re an Anglican priest in New Zealand. That’s cool!

        We absolutely DO need worship spaces. Several years ago, I almost became a “Non-Practicing Roman Catholic” opting to just stay home instead of going to Mass. But a non-Catholic, Christian friend encouraged me to 1) read the Bible for myself, which I did – it took me 4 months, and I’ve been in the Word ever since, and 2) to not “forsake the gathering of the assembly”. She told me to find a parish where I felt comfortable, and to go each Sunday.

        So I go to Mass at a Roman Catholic parish early Sunday morning, and then late Sunday morning, I go to a Southern Baptist church around the corner, to learn more about the Word.

        I, for one, am very grateful for worship spaces, and we must build up our minds, so that we can know truth from error. False prophets are not much of a problem (because what they say in our own time will not come true, such as Harold Camping who predicted the world would end last year), but we ARE to be wary of false teachers, and 1) knowing the Word and 2) sticking together with the Body of Christ, is what will keep us on track, not going to the right or the left of obedience to God.

        This is especially needed, because a few days ago, ‘esteemed’ leaders such as the Roman Catholic Nancy Pelosi, & Vice President Joe Biden, came out in support of same sex marriage. Perhaps you can write an article about “Church Discipline”, because these people are leading unsuspecting others down a bad path, one that dishonors God, and we know that from reading Scripture (ie. Romans Chapter 1).

        Empower the pulpit! Build churches!
        Preach the Word.

        1. Thanks, RJ. On this site I don’t limit to one particular denomination or country. As I say in the second paragraph of this post, “I hope this post interests many even though it is driven by preparations to build many church buildings following the Christchurch/Canterbury earthquakes.” Roman Catholics and Anglicans certainly take the history of Christian architecture into account. Other denominations rebuilding here may also find some of these ideas here helpful. Certainly many thousand from all around the globe have read this post, and I hope they found something of value here. Blessings.

        2. Brother David

          I was with you up until that crap about same sex marriage. Too bad that the preacher in that Baptist church is leading your down a bad path, one that dishonors God, the creator of the GLBTQ folks you disdain.

          Go back a step and take your friend’s advice. Start actually studying the scriptures for yourself and stop taking someone else’s word about what is in them. Stop taking for granted that the English translation that you are holding in your hand, in a neatly bound volume, is the final word on the scriptures. The real scriptures are not that neatly packaged and they were not written in English.

  4. Brother David

    Don’t forget these two

    2 Pet 1:19
    We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

    Rev 22:16
    I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.

  5. Gillian Trewinnard

    For lovers of poetry: ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ by John Donne. He writes of the ‘Pleasure or business’ of everyday life which become our centre, instead of our devotion to God:
    Hence is ‘t, that I am carried towards the West
    This day, when my soul’s form bends toward the East.
    There I should see a Sun, by rising, set,
    And by that setting endless day beget:
    But that Christ on this cross did rise and fall,
    Sin had eternally benighted all.
    [Excerpt, lines 9-14]

  6. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC

    Take Notice: Benedict XVI – Light of the World – The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times
    p.180 – “…we always have to keep present in our minds the fact that [Jesus] tells us with the greatest certainty ‘I will come again.” This statement comes before everything else. This is also why the Mass was originally celebrated facing east, toward the returning Lord, who is symbolized in the rising sun. Every Mass is therefore an act of going out to meet the One who is coming.In this way, his coming is also anticipated, as it were;we go out to meet him–and he comes, anticipatively, already now.

  7. Churches do not always face east.

    Some churches pretend to face east – the east end of Liverpool Cathedral faces north, simply because trying to build a massively large cathedral across a ridge rather than along it is an architectural nonsense.

    Paddy’s Wigwam (the RC Cathedral at the other end of the street called Hope) is circular, the altar is in the middle of the church – so that genuinely doesn’t have an east end.

  8. OK – but there is another view-point.

    Adam + Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23) and God placed on the East side of the Garden cherubim (looking outwards) plus a “flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24)

    So…..to be “banished away from” God is to go towards the East and to “return to” God is to move to the West.
    The First Temple (Solomon’s) in Jerusalem all had this procession from an entrance on the West side moving through the Temple to the Holy of Holies on the East side.
    We are all called to “return or move towards” God, in our daily lives,and to be fully reconciled as we were in the original Garden and will be in the new Garden when Jesus returns.

    The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (located on the traditional site of Calvary) has the same West to East orientation.

    My personal view is that orientation is important and, in a true worship setting, moving towards God is in a Westerly direction.

    Hope this helps everyone.

    1. Thanks, Dave. Your point is a fascinating one – though your explanation will confuse some readers as you seem to be arguing against yourself: The entrance of the Temple was on the East, the Holy of Holies on the West – so one moved in a Westerly direction. The Roman convention of ‘orientating’ churches West to East seems to have continued in some places into the 11th century. Blessings.

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