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.
I 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.
- Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council Through Liturgy and Architecture looks at many of the reasons why Christians have built their church buildings facing East for so many centuries.
- 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!”
- Architectural Design Guidelines 1
- Our Buildings Shape Us
- Architecture Affects My Soul
- Priest back to the people
- Anticipated eschatology