On Facing East

Over the last four weeks now, I have enjoyed setting out the reasons for “facing east” during the Eucharist (for any readers from free church traditions, that means the congregation and the clergy all facing the same direction, toward the altar or holy table) in our church newsletter. I’m engaging in this teaching so that our parish can, once or twice / year celebrate this way, as is permitted by the Book of Common Prayer. Three of the mini-essays hang together as a Trinitarian reading of the sacraments and I present them here in succession, without attempting to massage them into one piece. Wondering what you might think.

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Last week I began a series of short reflections on facing east (the technical term is ad orientam—for the Jeopardy files) when celebrating the Eucharist. The theme last week was one of unity and identity. Just as the entire congregation faces east, so also does the priest, to remind everyone that the priest is also a member of the community of faith, and indeed has been set aside by the community to say and do things only as the community’s representative.

For the next three weeks, I’d like to consider the other side of the altar—what facing east says about God, about Christ, and about our communion with God through Christ. This week, we consider what facing east says about God.

In our usual practice, we “gather around the table.” We face the table and each other at the same time to share a meal. This way of celebrating the Eucharist calls to mind the immanence of God. We might think especially here of the risen Lord meeting with Cleopas and another disciple at Emmaus. They gathered at the table and Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it. And when he did, the disciples perceived him.

When we face east, without contradicting the encounter I just described, we emphasize God’s transcendence, God’s “otherness.” Here, we think of the Temple theophanies in the Old Testament—when God “appeared” in response to Solomon’s prayer or to the prophet Isaiah. A deep sense of “otherness” and awe pervades those stories. Think also of the disciples’ response when Jesus rebuked the storm. “Who is this man that even the winds and the waves obey him?” Christian worship is a risk-laden encounter with the transcendent God who by his Word created and sustains all that is.

When we think of God’s transcendence, we might also think that we need a mediator between this God and us! We might need something—Someone—who will bring God near and at the same time, keep us from being overwhelmed by that nearness. Of course, we do have such a Someone, as the Comfortable Words in the BCP liturgy so beautifully stress. But that is next week’s topic.

For today, we are wise to find liturgical ways to accommodate both God’s immanence and transcendence, for both are true. If immanence on its own turns God into our Anytime Special Supernatural Everyday Friend, transcendence alone turns God into a remote, detached, and finally uninvolved observer of all that is. It is only as we hold both together that our imagination is fired by the God who gives himself to us in the pages of Holy Scripture—the God who is at once closer than a brother and a consuming fire.

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A common complaint about celebrating Holy Eucharist facing east is that we are all “facing the wall.” Not really. We are not facing a wall so much as we are facing a person, and that person is Jesus Christ, our great high priest, our mediator. (The image comes from the New Testament book of Hebrews, which has been the source of our Epistle readings for the last few weeks).

We do so symbolically, of course. Though I must immediately add that symbolically does not mean that Jesus really isn’t present—more on that next week—but to acknowledge that Jesus’ presence is itself given through created things. One of the symbols is captured in the word, east. According to the compass, I won’t be facing east at all on September 29, but south. I will be facing what is called “liturgical east.” So what does east symbolize?

As the place from which the sun rises, “east” is where we turn to remember the place from which the Son rises. We face east to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Which is why there is a powerful depiction of the crucifixion in our (liturgical) eastern window, and just underneath it, on the reredos, a cross. It is important to notice that the cross is gilded, budded, and empty. No longer a symbol of torture and death, it is now a thing of beauty (the gilding) and life (the buds), a symbol of death undone by resurrection (there is no body). And it is all of those things because of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

Facing east is another way of expressing the unique place of Jesus in the Christian story. He is our priest, our mediator, and our buffer. As the Incarnate God, he is the one who brings God near, and by his death and resurrection, we have been made worthy to stand in that God’s presence. It is Christ who brings God close and at the same time keeps us from being overwhelmed by that transcendent presence. Many Christians are decidedly uncomfortable with the notion that the white-hot holiness of God might undo them, but it seems to me to be integral to the Scriptures and the Great Tradition which all branches of Christianity share.

The good news is, that white-hot holiness is not simply a consuming fire (again, to use the language of Hebrews), but is a holy love which pursues sinful creatures and provides the means by which fellowship, a genuine union, is accomplished. That union is effected by Christ.

But the death and resurrection of Jesus happened 2000 years ago. How does that past event become a present reality? How does the Jesus who walked the dusty paths of Palestine come to us today?

That’s where we’ll turn next week.

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Last week, we began to talk a little bit about Jesus as he whose death and resurrection makes possible our reconciliation with God and we asked the question, how does that past event, which the New Testament describes using different metaphors—victory, verdict, sacrifice, loving display are the main four—become present to us?

Most Christians have traditionally believed that it happens through the sacraments, that the water, bread and wine, when received in faith, actually accomplish the act they symbolize. This was a matter of great debate in North African churches in the fifth century, with some arguing that the sacraments “worked” only if the priest administering them was himself a holy man and others, notably St. Augstine, insisting that the sacraments had entirely to do with God’s grace and not the holiness of the priest. And it was Augustine’s position that carried the day.

Anglicans have generally followed this Augustinian line of thought, though with our own emphasis. It was the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, who gave expression to the Anglican insight that it was through the agency of the Holy Spirit that Christ was made savingly present in the sacraments. We really do “feed . . . in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” not because the bread and wine are miraculously changed, but because by the power of the Holy Spirit these signs give to us the very life of Christ, who, as fully God and fully human, is the bridge that reconciles us to his Father.

Over the last three weeks we have reflected on the BCP Holy Communion service through the lens of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father calls us into fellowship, through the death and resurrection of the Son, to whom we have been united by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we eat and drink in faith, we really are united to Christ, really are able to name God as “Our Father,” as Jesus teaches us to do.

Why is this important? What does it have to do with facing east? It is important because it reminds us that in eucharistic worship, God is the actor from first to last. It is not something we do, whether because we are afraid that God will be angry with us if we do not or because we really are very nice people and want God to see just how lovely we are. God is the actor whom we can neither manipulate nor impress. God is the actor who acts out of sheer, unconditional, love to save us.

And facing east? Facing east reminds us (and let’s face it, especially the person up front) that the priest is, along with the congregation, coming to the altar to receive a gift that none of us, ordained or not, can ever earn. We are all in the same place, before the face of God, “whose property is always to have mercy.”

4 thoughts on “On Facing East

  1. It is time we return to this ancient way of worship in our churches. I recommend the book The Spirit of the Liturgy written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

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