Why do we pray facing East? Why does the priest not face the people when he prays?

 Why do we pray facing East?

Why does the priest not face the people when he prays?

Orthodox Christian worship is prayer, not entertainment.

Some people smile too much.

The Domino Theory.

St. John of Damascus, Book IV, chapter 12.


4th Saturday of Pascha.  May 3/16 2009


 From http://www.orthodox.net/journal/2009-05-16.html

I have a pet saying that I like to tell to my parishioners:


“The priest prays for the people, and with the people, but not instead of the people”.


I usually admonish them with this saying when I am announcing one of the very rare occasions when I will be gone on a weekend, to teach them that they are responsible for prayer in the church; this is not something that is the sole responsibility of the clergy. I am trying to minimize any of the mice “playing” when the cat is away!


My little aphorism is not just an admonishment; it is also shows the equality of the clergy and the people when we are addressing our prayers to God.


With rare exceptions, the priest (and deacon and bishop), with the people face toward the East[1] when they pray. “East” is, liturgically, in the direction of the altar, whether it faces true East or not. In a traditional church, “built from scratch” the altar always is to the East; in our modern world, where there are many buildings that are modified to use in worship, sometimes it is not possible for the altar to face true East.  If there is no altar present (such as when we have molebens in front of the cross on our land in McKinney, where God willing, we will have a new temple built by late summer 2009), everybody still faces in the same direction.


Facing East is an ancient tradition, grounded in sure knowledge about the Second Coming, first told us by the Lord, and then repeated by an angel after the disciples had just seen the Lord ascend into heaven:


“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27)


“…Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner[2] as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)


We believe that our Lord ascended on the Mount of Olives, and when He comes back, He will come on a cloud[3] from the East. Therefore, we face East when we pray.


There are other important biblical references to the East. The following is a NON-comprehensive list.


The wise men saw signs of the imminent birth of Christ from the East:


“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,  (2)  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Mat 2:1-2)


Ezekiel saw the “glory of the Lord” when facing East:


“And the glory of the Lord came into the house, by the way of the gate looking eastward:” (Eze 43:4 Brenton)


The Jews faced Eastward during their worship:


“And if the prince should prepare as a thanksgiving a whole-burnt-peace-offering to the Lord, and should open for himself the gate looking eastward, and offer his whole-burnt-offering, and his peace-offerings, as he does on the sabbath-day; then shall he go out, and shall shut the doors after he has gone out.” (Eze 46:12 Brenton )


There are lots of references in the Fathers to prayer facing East (see the end of this essay for an excerpt from St John of Damascus concerning this.) It has been a uniform part of our tradition since BEFORE Apostolic times.


When the people pray, they all pray together. We are all God’s children.


Does it make any sense for the people to face God, and the celebrant to turn his back to God during prayer? He cannot lead prayer when facing the people; he becomes a focal point for prayer; the people are facing him!


One can see how dangerous this practice of having the celebrant face the people by observing the excesses that have occurred in the sectarian churches (Full disclosure, please see the note[4] at the end of this essay). Just driving down the road and looking at billboards shows that the “mega churches” do not share our “mind”. Their billboards feature prominently the picture of the pastor, usually with his pretty wife and 2 pretty children, a boy and a girl, all smiling beatifically at the masses, or perhaps some other “beautiful person” gushing about how they have finally found a church they can believe in. So much of, (what shall we call it? “mainstream” or “sectarian” or “Protestant”) worship has become about personality. At look at the “mega” and even small country churches shows a wholly different way of worship than the ancient Jewish/Orthodox way. The “altar’ area is a stage, flanked with large TV screens, which show flattering close-ups of the pastor as he preaches, or the music minister as he performs.


This way of “worship” is really a form of entertainment. What can it teach the people? And what are all these ministers doing smiling so much at their audience, as if they are entertainers or salesmen? This type of worship is without significant substance, and often is directed to a passive audience, rooted in their theater chairs. Ironically, some of these churches which consider themselves to be “Apostolic” do not realize that their way of worship is far removed from that of the Apostles! And don’t even get me started about the theological content of the songs being sung today! As the music minister smiles and performs, a stream of pablum, to catchy melodies,  with drum rolls and guitar riffs, is being fed to the seated masses (to be fair, not all “Protestant” worship is like this, (some is quite sober and dignified) but the TV stuff is very common in many local churches.)


Contrast this with true, traditional Orthodox worship. The celebrant stands, usually in front of the altar, with a serious and sober demeanor, and the people stand with him, all symbolically facing God, to the East. The people much about piety from the way the celebrant and deacons serve. All is done carefully, soberly, with thought and good order.


Even the Roman Catholics have begun to realize the excesses that can happen when the priest faces the people when he liturgizes. The current Pope (Benedict) is a strong advocate of ending this innovation and he celebrates the liturgy facing, with the people, in the direction of the altar.


When the pastor teaches, he faces the people. This was the Jewish way as well; Christian worship is inherently Jewish. For everything, there is a time and a season, and when the pastor teaches, he faces the people, so they can hear his exhortations. It makes no sense (and is rude) to speak to people with our back to them; in the same way, it makes no sense, and is rude, for us to pray to God while turning our back to Him.





by St. John of Damascus, Book IV, chapter 12


It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the Mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.


Since, therefore, God1 is spiritual light 2, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness3 and Dayspring,4 the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: 0 sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East.5 Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed6: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West.


So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland.


Moreover the tent of Moses7 had its veil and mercy seat8 towards the East.


Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East.9


Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward.


Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him.


And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; 10 as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.11


So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten. 12


1 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27.
2 I John 1:5.
3 Mal. 4:2.
4 Zach. 3:8, 6:12, Luke 1:78
5 Ps. 68:32, 33.
6 Gen. 2:8.
7 Levit. 16:14.
8 Ibid. 2.
9 Num. 2:3.
10 Acts. 1:11.
11 Matt. 24:27
12 St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, ch. 27.

Source: http://nektarios.home.comcast.net/~nektarios/1575.html




Article from a Roman Catholic perspective about returning to prayer facing East: “[Re]Turn to the East?

A young priest asks if it is time to consider a change in practice” – http://www.adoremus.org/1199-Kocik.html


Another article from a Roman Catholic Perspective: “Full of Himself” – http:/www.thecatholicthing.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1532&Itemid=2


There is a Facebook Group that advocates (Western) clergy returning to facing East during prayer: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=17956894752


An Anglican apology: http://home.earthlink.net/~tshbsg/peoplelookeast.htm


Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas





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[1] A good article on this practice, more detailed than this little essay, can be found at: http://malankaraorthodoxchurch.in/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=407&Itemid=

[2] Our Lord was taken up on a cloud as the disciples watched Him, facing East: “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9)

[3] “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)

[4] I am unashamed to be a believer in the “Domino theory” regarding liturgical and church order changes. This theory, which I first heard of as a boy when the war in Vietnam was being justified, is that small changes inevitably lead to bigger ones (if Vietnam falls, then other countries will also fall to communism). I have seen this theory in full operation on our modern times, and will say whenever given an opportunity that bad worship or bad church order leads to bad theology and vice-versa.  The departure from the ancient Christian worship  had had disastrous and unanticipated results.  This is evident outside of the Orthodox church, and unfortunately, significant examples can be found in it as well.

2 Responses to “Why do we pray facing East? Why does the priest not face the people when he prays?”

  1. Deborah says:

    Until only very recently my experience has been decades of worship (mostly while seated) with the worship leaders facing the congregation. As a child, and even as an adult until only a few years ago, it never occurred to me that I was anything more than a spectator, audience member or a student in a lecture hall, in church. There was the elevated ‘stage’, the podium, and in the later years, bands and orchestras—and always, always, someone performing before us. Each of these elements of this style of worship places the congregation in the passive role of spectator, not participant. Yes, there is a place for the passive role of receiving God’s grace during services, but worship is an activity, our movement towards God in offering Him our praise, thanksgiving and petitions.

    Singing together is the only active part, nowadays in most evangelical services. (In my younger days, there was also ‘responsive reading’ of the scriptures—but that has mostly disappeared from modern evangelical services. And in some Protestant churches there is also regular communion and recitation of a creed [Apostle’s or Nicene]—but that was not my experience in the churches I attended.) Most of the service is spent in a passive sitting position. And as a concession to our culture’s affinity for comfort, it is usually spend sitting in padded pews or chairs. It is very easy to lose focus and even to fall asleep under these conditions. Perhaps this is why we now are seeing more and more desperate attempts to wake up and keep the attention of the ‘audience’ with loud music, videos, props and unexpected stunts. Much of today’s evangelical worship has disintegrated into a spiritual form of circus entertainment with the lead performers facing and focusing on the people rather than on God.

  2. There are a lot of talks nowadays about Russian Orthodox Church here in Russia, there are voices raised for maiking the church language “simpler, closer to people”, appeals for service texts into Russian…And there are tendencies to adjust Church to “comfort”. Some people say it’s difficult for them to stand during the service (they ignore the fact that there are benches there, and if you are tired or don’t feel well, you may sit down for some time). LKiturgy lasts 1,5 hours, but this seems to be difficult. At the same time, it appears for those people to stand hours in queues for tickets, for boat trips, to spend whole days working at their cottages, dancing etc . But the tendency to trasform even the Church into sort of an entertainment is tracked. Either to make it “more comfortable”, with sitting & dowsing, either “more amusing”.
    Some people also says they don’t understand the language, and feel bored because of this. A lie. They feel bored not because of this. Everyone knows – when you come to Church seriously, and try to be a part of it, you will soon understand the church language, read on it, and feel it as a real treasure.
    Christ & His successors did not look for comfort. No real Christians surrounded themselves with much comfort. Of course, we are too far from them, and we need comfortable things in our daily life, we get accustomed to some things without which we feel difficulties. But even in our daily life we forget that things serve people, not vice versa, we become slaves of our things & facilities. Example: I had a lovely small lamp (actually a torch), where I used to put little candles, and I liked looking how they glitter at night. A couple of days ago the window, where it stood, was suddenly opened by a strong blast of wind. And my favourite “toy” fell down on the floor & was broken, with glass fragments scattered all over the floor…It was such a pity! I got so much upset! This example is very indicative. It’s understandable from the human point of view, but if we think deeper…does our reaction differ much when we are deprived of any insignificant thing? Even if we don’t think we are very tired to things & earthy moments, our attachment for them can be much tighter than we expect. I thought then after this happened – what if I get deprived of much more, and what is really valuable for me? What will be my reaction? Will I be able to overcome, to reject “comfort” (or at least give ot its real price) and prefer Christ? Will my faith survive?

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