Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why do Churches face East?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Church Architecture:

Q:  As I travel, I have observed a tendency for churches to face east.  Is there any significance to this, and is there a rule about what direction a church must face? 

In Matthew 24:27, Jesus says, "As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."  Ezekiel 43:4 also speaks of God’s presence as arriving from the East. 

In light of these verses, as well as other verses that compare God’s encounters with Christians to the rising sun, Christians have chosen to represent Jesus second coming in architecture, art, and other types of symbolism as being "from the east to the west."

Since Christian worship is sometimes described as a preview of Jesus’ return as well as a moment of heaven coming down to earth, and because Christians are reminded in Scripture to always be watchful regarding the return of Jesus, the Church chose to represent this in traditional church architecture by situating the Altar (which is the focal point of Christian liturgy) in the East end of the building, so that as Christians worship, they are facing the direction from which Jesus’ return is represented—as if they were watching for the Lord to arrive.

Other passages from the Bible use Jerusalem to represent the center of the reign of Jesus in the life of the world to come, and it is a popular to think of Jerusalem as the location where Jesus will touch down and sit in judgment when He returns “just as [the Apostles] saw him go up into heaven” at His Ascension.  For those of us Christians who live in the United States, Southern Europe, or Northern Africa, this also means that when we worship facing east, we face Jerusalem, making the visual imagery of the Church worshiping in expectation of Jesus’ return even more vivid. 

This custom is also represented in traditional cemetery planning.  Caskets have historically been placed with the head to the west and the feet to the east to paint the picture of the saints worshipping in the Church and being resurrected to face Jesus when He returns. (a person laying with their head to the west would face east if they were to stand up.) Additionally, when funerals are held in liturgical congregations, it is customary during the service to place the casket with the feet toward the altar to reflect a similar image and to remind us that the deceased believer and all the company of heaven continue to worship along with the Church even in death.

One particularly interesting exception to this custom exists, which is the funeral and burial of pastors. Pastors caskets would be situated with the head facing the altar during the service and buried with their head facing east and the feet west. The reason for this is that in the picture presented by this custom, the pastors would rise to proclaim the return of Jesus to their people, thus rising with their backs toward Jesus and facing the rest of the saints.

This is different from the traditions of other religions, such as the tradition of the Muslims which requires them to face Mecca during prayer, because this is not intended as a command or mandatory regulation, nor is it intended to earn anything from God.  Instead, it is for the purpose of visually representing and spatially depicting the reality of Jesus’ promised return, and thus better instructing the gathered faithful about the teachings of the Church.

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