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Facing East, Facing the Son of God

Our focus at Saint Paul Catholic Church is on God, and His Son, so we face East.

When we designed our new church, dozens of parishioners asked / demanded that their new church look and feel like a traditional Catholic Church. In discussions with parishioners one thing that was decided early on was that our pews would face the altar in a traditional east / west configuration. We initially explored a cruciform style of architecture and seating; however, the building costs with the newest Florida Hurricane Codes put the cruciform shape out of our budget. Having to re-shape the early design prompted us to ask ourselves the question: "Is there a reason all the pews should face one direction, and should that direction be East?"

"People Look East and Sing today, the Lord is on His way!"  --Advent hymn.

There is much historical and theological justification for our church facing East.  From early on, Christians adopted the Jewish practice of praying toward Eden, in the East (Gen. 2:8), the direction from which Ezekiel says: "and I saw the glory of the God of Israel comingfrom the east." (Ez 43:2,4).

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.  --Matthew 24:27

One of the Ancient fathers of the church Tertullian informs us that Christian churches are "always" oriented "toward the light".   Another of the Fathers, Origen,  asserts 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. 

Amazingly, the earth is actually turning in such a way that we see the morning sun and new sky only in the east--everywhere on earth.  Facing the east of the coming sun points us to the coming Christ.  Our prayer posture of facing East follows the physical order in bowing to Christ.

Etymologically, the most fundamental and original definition of "orientem" is not ecclesial (it predates the Church), nor is the fundamental meaning even "east."  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.   The rising of the light, the coming of the light, the coming of the sun / Son.

Furthermore, Saint John Damascene says 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.  Other Church Fathers who confirm this usage are Clement of Alexandria, Saint Basil and Saint Augustine.  To this day, the ancient Coptic Rite of Egypt retains in its Eucharistic liturgy the age-old exhortation of the deacon: "Look towards the East!" 

When planning our church there were only a couple of people who wanted some sort of pew configuration where the people could see each other - the idea being that it would give people a greater sense of community.  However, this concept is not theologically sound.  For the reason we are in church, sacred space, is to worship God and to face Him, no other.  Our sense of community is based on our relationship with God.  It is only out of that relationship with God that we have a relationship with each other.

Some others mentioned they felt people facing each other in a fan type shape or antiphonal shape would increase congregational  participation.  While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, and for lectures,  it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy.  Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment.  Despite what its proponents say, the fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater.   Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches.  In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher, not God.

Our focus at Saint Paul Catholic Church is on God, and His Son, so we face East.

This is a photo of our church during construction before the stained glass was installed in the east sanctuary windows.  The photographer is facing east; the pews are being prepared for installation as they are set facing east.

Once again the photographer is facing east in this photo.  The stained glass has now been installed in the east sanctuary wall.  This photo was taken during the week of the church dedication August 2008.

for more on this topic see:
Liturgical Renewal and Eschatology
Fr. Thomas M. Kocik
Fr. Doug Halsema, 
Jun 7, 2009 3:00 PM