Editor’s note: Bishop Serratelli’s article initially appeared in the December 1 edition of The Beacon, newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, and is reprinted here with his kind permission.
The Kaaba of Mecca is Islam’s most holy shrine. It is said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. It is considered “the House of Allah.” Mosques throughout the world are built with a wall niche, known as mihrab, pointing toward this shrine to indicate the direction that Muslims should face when at prayer. By adopting a common direction for their prayers, devout Muslims express their unity as followers of Mohammed as worshippers of the one God.
Jews throughout the world also face a common direction when at prayer. According to the Talmud, Jews outside of Israel pray in the direction of Israel. Jews in Israel pray in the direction of Jerusalem. Jews in Jerusalem turn toward the Temple Mount. And, if they are on the Temple Mount, then they are to pray in the direction of where the Holy of Holies once stood.
In 70 A. D., the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, not leaving one stone upon another. Yet, pious Jews continue to face the direction of Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies when at prayer. This sacred direction reminds them that they are lifting up their voice in prayer to God, the all-Holy One, who had given them the Promised Land as an inheritance and had chosen to dwell in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Now that the Temple is no more, the synagogue has become the place of common prayer for all Jews. However, the design of some synagogues does not position the congregation to face eastward toward Jerusalem. In these instances, the faithful pray in the synagogue facing the Ark that contains the Torah.
By facing the Torah, that is, God’s self-revelation in Sacred Scripture, the congregants are at least spiritually turned to God. By maintaining a common spiritual direction to their prayer, Jews around the world express not only the unity of their faith, but also their longing for all the scattered of God’s people to return to Jerusalem and to a rebuilt Temple in the anxious anticipation for the coming of the Messiah.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians also faced east when at prayer. In fact, Tertullian (160-220 AD) actually had to defend Christians against the pagans who accused them of facing east to worship the sun. Many Church Fathers, such as St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, also speak of the practice of facing east. In the 3rd century, the Didascalia, a treatise on church order from northern Syria, set down the rule of facing east during the Eucharist. It said, “Let the place of the priests be separated in a part of the house that faces east. In the midst of them is placed the bishop’s chair, and with him let the priests be seated. Likewise, and in another section let the laity be seated facing east” (Didascalia, Chapter 12).
Before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, Christians worshipped in their homes. One of the oldest known house churches has been discovered on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire, in present day Syria, at Dura-Europos. This house church dates from 233 A.D. Archaeologists have uncovered an assembly room in the house where as many as 60 people would gather for prayer. The room was designed with an altar against the east wall. In this way, the priest and all the faithful would together be facing east when celebrating the Eucharist.
Writing in the 7th century, St. John of Damascus gives three explanations for the eastward stance of Christians at prayer. First, Christ is “the Sun of Righteousness” (Mal 4:2) and “the Dayspring from on high” (Lk 1:78). Facing the light dawning from the east, Christians affirm their faith in Christ as the Light of the world. Second, God planted the Garden of Eden in the east (cf. Gn 2:8). But, when our first parents sinned, they were exiled from the garden and moved westward. Facing east, therefore, reminds Christians of their need to long for and strive for the paradise that God intended for them. And, third, when speaking of his Second Coming at the end of history, Jesus said, “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt. 24:27). Thus, facing the east at prayer visibly expresses the hope for the coming of Jesus. (cf. St. John Damascene, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 12).
Holding fast to this ancient tradition of facing eastward at prayer, the 12th century builders of the first St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna oriented this church to be in line with sunrise on the feast of St. Stephen. However, even from the early centuries, not all churches adhered to this tradition. In fact, the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Lorenzo in Rome and St. Peter’s in the Vatican were built facing westward. So also the important Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Thus, when a bishop or priest celebrates the Eucharist in these churches, the people and priest face each other. Nonetheless, the celebrant himself still remains facing the east. By his position, the celebrant stands before the faithful as a reminder to focus, not on him, but on Christ, whose coming they await.
Today, our churches do not conform to one standard architectural design. Some are shaped like Rome’s ancient basilicas. Some resemble a Latin cross; others, a Greek cross. And, many of the more recently constructed churches favor the form of an amphitheater. A quick overview of how the Eucharist has been celebrated from the birth of Christianity shows us that, over and above the physical design of any church, the spiritual orientation of the faithful at prayer is most important.
In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “The common turning toward the east was not ‘a celebration toward the wall,’…it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’…. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord’…. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 151).
Today, the Eucharist is almost universally celebrated by a priest facing the people. This manner of celebration was introduced in order to respond to the Second Vatican Council’s call for “full, conscious and active participation of the laity” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 12). To achieve this, as Benedict XVI insightfully reminds us, “Every age must discover and express the essence of the liturgy anew. The point is to discover this essence amid all the changing appearances” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 81). This means that, in every liturgy, we need to be aware of what is taking place. We need to be fully conscious that we are being made partakers in the Paschal Mystery, sharing in the very Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
Whether celebrated with priest and people facing each other or with priest and people together facing the same direction, every Eucharist is Christ coming to meet us, gracing us with a share in his own divine life. Every Eucharist is a proleptic sharing in the feast of heaven. Therefore, in every celebration of the Eucharist, both priest and faithful should focus their attention not on each other, but on the Lord.
In celebration of the ancient Coptic Rite of Egypt, a deacon exhorts the faithful with the words “Look towards the East!” His age-old exhortation, found also in Greek and Ethiopian liturgies, stands as a strong reminder of the spiritual direction of our prayer. As Christians, we join all our prayers to those of Christ. We turn our eyes and our hearts ad orientem, to Christ, the Dayspring who comes from the east to meet us in the Eucharist and will come at the end of our earthly pilgrimage to gather us together into the home of our Father, the New and Eternal Jerusalem.
Bishop Arthur Serratelli has served as bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, since 2004. In November he concluded his term as Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. In October 2016 he was appointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. At present, he is the Chairman of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). He is a member of the Vatican’s Vox Clara Commission.