w1Fr. Antony Alancherry



It is a universal understanding that God is present everywhere in the universe and He can hear our prayers anywhere and everywhere. If then, how do we hold the view of turning to a specific position for the prayer? Is it necessary to turn to a particular direction while praying? But we see in the tradition of all religions that the system of prayer developed by taking a specific position for the prayer. Jews who live anywhere outside the holy city of Jerusalem traditionally turn to the direction of Jerusalem in Palestine for prayer, Muslims anywhere in the world will turn to Ka’aba,the sacred stone in Mecca[1].The Hindus pray facing the East or the Holy of Holies,viz; the Sreekovil[2]. Among Christians the tradition of Facing East is as old as Christianity. The faithful were praying turning East when they prayed privately as well as publicly[3].

The Oriental churches in Kerala are very particular in keeping this tradition of facing the East while praying except the Syro Malabar Church. The tradition of turning to the East in prayer is part of the rich heritage of the Eastern churches. In the ancient times the churches were built in the east-west direction and again the bodies of the dead were laid to rest facing the east with the hope of resurrection and meeting Jesus face to face.[4] But for the Syro Malabar church this is a burning issue. There are two ideologies in the church whether to face people or to altar during the time of liturgical celebration. This paper aims to examine the both opinions and to establish which is more biblical theological and pastoral.


The eastward direction developed in Christianity has a strong biblical basis. Facing the East while praying is shown as having biblical foundations both in the Old and New Testaments.[5] The east was given serious importance in the bible. Let us examine some of them.


In the biblical story of creation we read: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the East; and there he put the man whom he had formed”. (Gen 2, 8). Eventually Adam and Eve, after their act of disobedience were sent out from the Garden of Eden in the East. According to the Christian interpretation , since the time of this expulsion of the first parents by the eastern gate of paradise ,all children of Adam and Eve look back to their lost home, the paradise in the East, with a deep sense of spiritual home sickness.[6] Bible depicts man as a being in search of his lost identity which was recovered by Jesus on the cross and where the good thief was fortunate to enter with Jesus (Lk 23, 43).


In the Bible East is connected with the reality of heaven.[7] In the book of prophet Ezekiel we read: “Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple”(Ez 43,1-5).Again the prophet admonishes the need of  eastern gate to remain closed since the glory of God had entered through this gate. “Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And he said to me, “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord , the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut”(Ez 44,1-2).


Jesus said “I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8, 12). Light is the source of the life. On our planet earth, all life depends on the light of the sun. But the physical sun on our solar system sustains only biological life in plants, animals, and human beings. This life will eventually die. The sun as a star will ultimately die as well. In the spiritual realm, Jesus is the eternal sun. He is the source and sustainer of all life, both biological and spiritual.[8] He is “the true light that enlightens every human being” (Jn 1, 9). Therefore we symbolically turn to the direction of the rising sun to receive the light of the risen Christ. Christ is also called “the bright morning star” (Rev 22, 16). He inaugurated the new age of the Kingdom of God. As the dawn breaks, the eastern horizon brightens up with beautiful colours. We turn to the beauty and brilliance of God’s light as we praise the triune God facing the east.[9]


There is an argument in favour of Mass facing the people that it is in conformity with the Last Supper. They argue that Jesus was facing the disciples during the time of Last Supper and it should be the model for versus populum. But the deep understanding with regard to the Jewish background of celebrating the Passover meal clears that at the Last Supper Christ certainly did not face His apostles[10]. Msgr. Gamber explains the table manners of Jewish culture as follows:

            “Apparently Luther envisioned the scene of the Last Supper in the framework of his own time: Jesus standing or sitting at the centre of a long table, the Apostles placed at His right and left. Can we positively say that this is how Jesus actually sat at the table? He probably did not simply because it would have contradicted the table etiquette observed in the antiquity. At the time of Jesus, and during the following centuries, no round or semi-circular tables were in use. The side of the table facing the observer remained empty: it was the side from which the food was served. The people partaking in the meal would sit or recline behind the table, in a semi-circular bench. The place of honor was not, as one would expect, at the centre of the table, but on its right side. The second highest place of honor was at the opposite end of the table. This seating arrangement is depicted all the oldest illustrations of the Last Supper”.[11]

The participants in the Last Supper like in any other feast were not concerned at whom they were facing, but they were only concerned that they were facing the temple of Jerusalem. Thus at the Last Supper, Christ and disciples faced all the same direction, because of its special sacred signification[12], something we imitate in our liturgical celebrations. So Jesus was not facing the Apostles during the time of Last Supper but together with the disciples he was facing the Jerusalem or the God the Father.


A popular Christian belief developed in the course of time that in the Second Coming, Christ would come from the East. The basis of this tradition is the gospel reference (Mt 24, 27) that the coming of the Son of Man would be like lightening that shines from east to west.[13] So turning to the east stands for our final preparation to receive Christ when he comes for the last judgement of the world. Thus the east symbolizes our spiritual wakefulness, our readiness to give account of our life and our hope in the transfiguration of all creation in Christ our Lord.


There is strong theological foundation for the tradition of facing the East. The custom of prayer facing the east was started in the beginning of the second century.[14]The Christians were “praying in the direction of the rising sun”, “facing the light” witnesses Tertullian in the second century[15]. Since it is mentioned by the Fathers of the church[16] and ancient documents of the church it has a theological background. Let us analyse some of the theological features of facing the East.


In all the liturgical traditions to turn to the East means to turn to God. The quotation from St. Augustine is noteworthy in this context. “When we rise to pray, we turn east, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if, He had moved away from the other direction on earth…but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order ,that is, to God”[17]. In the anaphora of Addai and Mari we pray like this: “Let your minds be on high”. “Towards you, God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob O, glorious king”. “The Qurbana is offered to God, the Lord of all…” [18]. The God experience is the outcome of ‘standing before God’. The prophets especially Moses and Isaiah had this experience of Almighty when they were standing face to God.  (Ex 3, 6; Is 6, 5). In liturgy we experience the imminent God who became flesh and dwelt among us. When turning to east we stand before God facing Him who is the life and light of this whole universe.


We know that dawn is allegorically related to the rising sun and rising sun is related to the east. So also since Christ is the ‘light of the world’ (Jn 8, 12) the person of Christ and direction of east is closely related. The whole universe is in a journey towards Christ.[19] Then we can say that orientation towards the east while praying has a Christological significance[20]. When we pray facing the East it means that we pray to Jesus who is the light of this world and who eradicates the darkness from this world and radiates the rays of hope. This turning to East according to Origen: “symbolises the soul looking toward when the true light rises”. [21]

The shepherd image of Jesus is very relevant in this context. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads the sheep towards God the Father[22]. He is not a shepherd who stands in last and controlling the sheep but he goes in front and leads them to the end. (Jn 10, 4; 10, 27). In the liturgical celebration the same is happening where the priest is the image of Christ leading the faithful towards the heavenly Jeruselem.The Constitution Lumen Gentium of Second Vatican says: “The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people; in the person of Christ he effects the Eucharistic sacrifice and offers it to God in the name of all the people…they  are consecrated in order to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful as well as to celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament…they unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head…and on the behalf of the faithful who are moved to sorrow or are sticken with sickness they exercise in an eminent degree a ministry of reconciliation and comfort , whilst they carry the needs and supplications of the faithful to God the Father”[23]. The direction towards the Altar during the liturgy establishes the role of priest as the pastor who leads the people entrusted to him towards God as Jesus did. “The priest is also like a shepherd, not driving his flock from behind, but leading them. They are the people of God advancing through the desert of this life to the promised land , symbolised by the east, priest and people striving together to reach the lost paradise reopened by Christ”. [24]


Church is depicted in the Qurbana as a bride waiting for receiving the bridegroom who is Christ.”…may we be found worthy to receive from heaven the manifestation of your beloved Son, and to thank you and praise you unceasingly in your church, crowned like a spouse and full of every help and blessing…”[25].The second Vatican council defines church as a pilgrim community. Church is a community which aims at the heavenly Jerusalem.”In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God”[26].Cardinal Ratzinger cites J.A Jungmann, to say that in the facing of the east the priest and the people know that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. As pilgrim people of God they set off the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us[27]. It is a journey to re-enter the lost paradise which was restored by Christ. When the celebrant and the community together facing the altar it reveals the pilgrim nature of the church where the whole community step towards the sanctuary which is the symbolism of heaven. In this endeavour priest stands in the front to lead the faithful like Christ who already showed the way and he who himself became the way. So the custom of facing the east is a guiding the people in pilgrimage toward the kingdom, invoked in prayer until the return of the Lord.[28]


The Didascalia says: “Indeed it is required that you pray towards the east, as knowing that which is written ‘give thanks to God, who rides upon the heavens towards the east’.The custom of praying towards the east is connected with the belief that Christ will appear in the east at the Parousia”[29].Mar Abdiso deals with the eschatological significance of facing the east as follows : “ The custom of worshipping towards the east is the subject of an apostolic canon, and is founded upon the saying of our blessed Lord ‘ as the light cometh forth from the east and shineth towards the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be, of heaven’, it becometh is ever to be on watch, with our faces turned towards the promise of His coming”[30]. Facing the east in prayer is the outward expression of the eschatological hope of the second coming of Christ. If one ignores the rich symbolism of facing the east during the Eucharistic celebration as an expression of the eschatological hope of the Parousia of the Lord, he cannot understand the real meaning of the celebration of the Qurbana.[31]

Facing east makes the cosmic dimension of the Eucharist present through liturgical gesture[32]. Because of the rising sun, the east –Oriens- was both a symbol of the Resurrection and a presentation of the hope of the Parousia. This position towards the east is an interpretation in terms of parousia, a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.[33]


It is very crucial problem in the Syro Malabar church. The people who are against facing the east or altar would agree the theological calibre of this system. They oppose facing the east due to the pastoral problems. They say that it is not pastorally viable to face the altar during the time of Eucharistic celebration. Is it a valid argument? Is there any pastoral difficulty with regard to this venerable tradition of facing the East?


The proponents of versus populum demand that it (facing people) has important pastoral advantages, particularly as regards visibility and audibility. We see the argument of the National Liturgy Commission of England and Wales: “Celebration facing the people permits them to see the sacred action better, improves their dialogue with the celebrant and clearly indicates the unity of priest and people in the one celebration”.[34] It is a new orientation which was introduced in the world that the congregation needs to see everything that is performed in the ceremony. It is a modern idea which is alien to the liturgical ethos of east and west. In the ancient times to participate in the liturgy means: “that each category of person taking part should say the words and carry out the actions allocated to it (sacred ministers, the choir, and the people), and not to follow every action of the liturgy visually”.[35]


Some people argue that facing people is more sociological and it will increase the popular participation. Facing the people will not increase popular participation in liturgy.[36]  According to the new interpretation taken from the modern sociological point of view, Qurbana facing the people creates better contact between the presiding priest and the participating congregation. This tradition stresses, they argue, on better participation, with the theology of common priesthood, where all are the celebrants of the same action “gathering around the altar”. But Pope Benedict XVI explains this phenomenon as an unprecedented clericalization, where the “presider” becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him; we have to see him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Less and less God is in the picture. The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-closed circle. In the common turning toward the east, the priest himself was not regarded as so important, and the congregation looked together “toward the Lord”. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at each other. [37]

The observation of Alfred Lorenzer deserves special mention here. He questions the claim that celebrating the Eucharist facing people strengthens the sense of being a community and makes a few remarks of aesthetical nature:

“And it is not only that the microphone picks up every breath that is being drawn, together with every other background noise. The whole scene is more reminiscent of the studio setup for a television cooking show; even the liturgical form observed in Protestant Reformed Churches are more formal…It goes on to present awkwardly the rite as an essential process of deliberate acts; it resists on conjuring up a false sense of transcendence that confuses the physical act of doing something with the real transcendental nature of the mythos. For example, it is intent on purposely exhibiting an act which shows us every detail of the ritual of eating: you sit and watch a man awkwardly breaking the brittle Host into pieces, and you watch him how he stuffs the pieces into his mouth. Whether you like it or not, you are forced to witness the way the person chews- not always an aesthetically pleasing act to watch; you get to watch the person’s peculiar way of washing down the dry pieces of the Host; you watch his way of drying and polishing the chalice with a cloth”.[38]


All are concerned today is about the people. They are not concerned about teaching the essential liturgical principles and giving new convictions to them. The closer observation reveals the fact that the entire liturgical crisis in the Syro Malabar Church is due to the pastor’s problem not due to the pastoral problems. So what is needed today is proper faith formation that is making people aware and convinced of the theological necessity and profundity of facing the altar. The second Vatican Council suggests that “all clerics and those who are to receive sacred orders should be well instructed concerning rites and particularly in practical rules for inter ritual questions. The Council targets not only priests and seminarians but also lay people that they should receive instructions concerning rites and their rules in their catechetical formation which is a responsibility of the leaders of the church.[39] Today the attention is paid to improve the style of acting of the celebrant president; all attention is drawn to the performance, to communication with the assembly. Consequently, even the seminary formation is concentrated on externals, based on sociology rather than theology[40]. Today we see a misunderstanding with regard to the liturgy that it is man oriented and the priest must become a highly skilled animator, an able communicator. The idea that priest acts in God’s name and brings us the divine message and transmits us God’s grace is side-lined today in the modernity. So here all system should be evaluated and find new solutions based on Mystagogy as the Fathers of the Church were doing in the past.


We have seen the beauty of a venerable tradition of facing the east. It is clear that this tradition is not baseless but it has a strong biblical and theological foundation. The lack of interest in the liturgical matters creates confusion in our Church that the people are not given the proper faith formation.  Today the liturgy, as well as the way of its celebration has become a matter of discussion and dispute and all were carried away by emotional overturns rather than trying to find out the truth and live out the liturgy in a meaningful way. It is unfortunate that priests are least interested in liturgical matters and they are not ready and even incapable to give the proper liturgical formation in the parish community. Because of a kind of allergy towards the liturgical matters among the leaders of the Church it becomes a pastor’s problem than that of a pastoral problem. There should be an urgent attempt to create a true ecclesial sprit according to the teachings of the Church through a liturgical catechesis which will definitely create good results. The advice of Second Vatican Council, as it is celebrating its golden jubilee, should be inspiring for all the liturgical renewal in our Church: “…if they(Eastern Churches) have fallen away due to circumstances of times or persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral traditions.”[41]



BADGER, The Nestorians and Their Rituals, Vol.2 (London, 1969).

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Documents of Second Vatican Council.

GAMBER, K., The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (New York, 1993).

GEORGE, K.M.,   “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 26 -28.

KOONAMMAKKAL, T., “Some Liturgical Principles Forgotten by the So-Called Syro Malabar Church”, Christian Orient XV/2&3 (1994) 147-157.

MATHEUS, R., “Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 83- 96.

MATHEUS, R., Palestine in Jesus’ Time (Kottayam, 1998).

MOOLAN, J., Introduction to Oriental Liturgy and its Theology Syro Malabar Church (Kottayam, 2012).

MOONJELY, K., DaivarahasyangaludeVisudhavedi, (Kaduvakkulam, 2013).

POOVANNIKUNNEL,J., Kizhakkinu Abhimukhamayi Prathikkunnathinte Samgathyam (Alwaye, 1990).

RATZINGER, J., The Feast of Faith (San Francisco, 1986).

RATZINGER, J., The Spirit of the Liturgy (Banglore, 2000).

Roman Documents on the Syro Malabar Liturgy (Kottayam, 1999).

THADIKKATTU, G., Liturgical Identity of the Mar Toma Nazrani Church (Kottayam, 2004).

THAKADIYEL, G., The Eschatological Vision of the East Syrian Holy Qurbana, (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) (Rome, 2009).

The Order of the Raza

[1] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 26.

[2] G.THADIKKATTU, Liturgical Identity of the Mar TomaNazrani Church (Kottayam, 2004) 237.

[3] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 26.

[4] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 27.

[5] G.THADIKKATTU, Liturgical Identity of the Mar TomaNazrani Church (Kottayam, 2004) 230.

[6] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 27.

[7]J.POOVANNIKUNNEL, KizhakkinuAbhimukhamayiPrathikkunnathinteSamgathyam (Alwaye, 1990) 11.

[8]J.POOVANNIKUNNEL,KizhakkinuAbhimukhamayiPrathikkunnathinteSamgathyam (Alwaye, 1990) 15.

[9] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 27.

[10]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 83.

[11] K.GAMBER, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (New York, 1993) 139.

[12]R.MATHEUS, Palestine in Jesus’ Time (Kottayam, 1998) 190.

[13] K.M GEORGE, “Why Turn to East for Prayer?”Sahayatra 17 (2002) 27.

[14]J.MOOLAN, Introduction to Oriental Liturgy and its Theology Syro Malabar Church (Kottayam, 2012) 227.

[15] R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 86.

[16]Roman Documents on the Syro Malabar Liturgy (Kottayam, 1999)257.

[17] It is a quotation cited by R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 86.

[18]The Order of the Raza, 37.

[19]K.MOONJELY, DaivarahasyangaludeVisudhavedi, (Kaduvakkulam, 2013)94.

[20]J.POOVANNIKUNNEL,KizhakkinuAbhimukhamayiPrathikkunnathinteSamgathyam (Alwaye, 1990) 29.

[21]K.MOONJELY, DaivarahasyangaludeVisudhavedi, (Kaduvakkulam, 2013)91.

[22]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 88.

[23]Second Vatican Council, LumenGentium, 28.

[24]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 88.

[25]The Order of the Raza, 11.

[26]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1090.

[27] J. RATZINGER, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Banglore, 2000)80.

[28]Roman Documents on the Syro Malabar Liturgy (Kottayam, 1999)258.

[29] G.THAKADIYEL, The Eschatological Vision of the East Syrian Holy Qurbana, (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) (Rome, 2009)302.

[30]BADGER,The Nestorians and Their Rituals, Vol.2 (London, 1969)361.

[31] G.THAKADIYEL, The Eschatological Vision of the East Syrian Holy Qurbana, (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) (Rome, 2009)303.

[32]J.MOOLAN, Introduction to Oriental Liturgy and its Theology Syro Malabar Church (Kottayam, 2012) 245.

[33] J.RATZINGER,TheFeast of Faith (San Francisco, 1986)140.

[34]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 90.

[35]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 91.

[36]T.KOONAMMAKKAL,”Some Liturgical Principles Forgotten by the So-Called Syro Malabar Church”, Christian Orient XV/2&3(1994)156.

[37] J.RATZINGER,The Spirit of the Liturgy (Bangalore, 2000)80.

[38] K.GAMBER, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (New York, 1993) 171-172.

[39] Second Vatican Council.OrientaliumEcclesiarum, 4.

[40]R.MATHEUS,” Facing the People of God or Facing God with the People,” Christian Orient XX/2 (1999) 93.

[41] Second Vatican Council.OrientaliumEcclesiarum, 6.

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