A Short Study on the Origin and Theological Significance

of Orientation in Prayer

Dr. Pauly Maniyattu 


Introduction b16liturgy

Turning to the East in prayer has been a universal tradition in the history of religions. The present paper is an attempt to see how far this tradition influenced the Christian worship and theology. The first part of the paper is a brief description of the pre-Christian tradition of orientation (facing East) in prayer from a phenomenological perspective of religion. The second part of the paper deals with the history of the Christian practice of orientation in prayer, based on the early Christian sources. The third part of the paper deals with theological significance of facing the East in prayer.


1. Turning to the East in the Pre-Christian Religions       

            In all the pre-Christian religions turning to the East in prayer was related to the solar symbolism. Most of the primitive religions viewed sun as a god. On account of the sun rising in the East pre-Christian religions as a whole found the East as the abode of God. Consequently it was believed to be obligatory to turn to the East in prayer.

            According to Franz Joseph Dölger, turning towards the East in prayer was a general custom in the sun-worship of the ancient world from the Mediterranean to India.[1]The ig Veda clearly speaks of the importance of the East in sacrifice.[2]  Turning towards the rising sun for prayer was customary among the Greeks, for example in the Neoplatonic theurgy of Proclus. Such orientation was also observed in the Roman religion.[3] Prayer facing East was also known to the Jewish tradition, both among the Essenes and in the Rabbinical Judaism of the first centuries A.D. According to Martin Wallraff, up to the second century, prayer towards the East was just as common in Judaism as prayer towards Jerusalem.[4]In the vision of the temple Ezekiel realizes the symbolic importance of the East in liturgical space.  The glory of the God of Israel enters the temple by the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces East (Ezek 43,2.4; 44,1-2).

Insisting on the solar worship, the pre-Christian religions revered the East as the abode of God. The Jewish and Christian attitude towards the symbolism of East was the result of the adaptation of the attitude originating from the solar worship. However, neither Jews nor Christians took to the solar worship. For them East is the symbolic abode of the true God.

Islam seems to have had no compromise with the prayer turning to the East. Islam severely criticized the Christian practice of turning to the East in imitation of the ancient religions. Islamic polemics condemned turning towards the East as a lapse into sun-worship. The direction of prayer was a constant topic of Christian-Muslim controversies until the fourteenth century.[5]

2. Origin and Development of Prayer Turning to the East in the Christian Tradition

            One of the immediate reasons which accounted for the origin of the Christian tradition of turning towards the East in prayer might be the Jewish custom of praying towards Jerusalem. The Jews in diaspora prayed towards Jerusalem. (Cf. Dan 6,10). Even after the destruction of the Temple, the prevailing custom of turning towards Jerusalem for prayer was kept in the liturgy of the Synagogue. This direction of prayer was inseparably bound up with the messianic expectation of Israel.[6] The early Christians in Jerusalem looked towards the Mount of Olives with reverence as the place of the Lord’s ascension and of his second coming. (Acts 1, 9-12). The explicit association between the parousia and the Mount of Olives is reflected in Acts 1,11. According to Kretschmar, on the eve of the Passover, the Christians of Jerusalem would have prayed turning towards the Mount of Olives, the place where they expected the salvific events of the last days to unfold. Given the topography of the city, this meant that they were facing East. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the hope for the Parousia became detached from the Mount of Olives, while the Eastward direction of prayer was retained and developed into a general principle.[7]

            From very early times, it was a matter of course for Christians all over the known world to turn in prayer towards the rising sun, that is to say, towards the geographical East. In private and in liturgical prayer Christians turned, no longer towards the earthly Jerusalem, but towards the new, heavenly Jerusalem. The rising sun was considered an appropriate expression of the eschatological hope.[8]

2.1. Early Christian Sources on the Prayer Turning to the East

            There is strong evidence for the eastward prayer from most parts of the Christian world from the second century onwards.  The apocryphal Acts of Paul, written around the year A.D. 180 speaks about Paul’s prayer facing the East. “Then Paul stood with his face to the East and lifted up his hands to heaven and prayed a long time.”[9] Though, perhaps, the account in the Acts of Paul may be fictional, it was indeed making reference to the current practices like facing East in prayer.

Tertullian, in his works To the Nations and The Apology, from A.D. 197, bears witness to the fact that Christians were turning towards the East in Prayer, both in the liturgy and in private prayer at home. According to him this practice was so self-evident that it did not need express justification.[10]

Origen gives the reasons for prayer facing East: “it should be immediately clear 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 towards where the true light rises.”[11] Origen attests that together with other rites the turning to the East was ‘handed on and entrusted to us by the High Priest and his sons. That is, it has its origin with Christ and his Apostles.[12]Later in the 9th century the East Syrian Patriarch Timothy I, in his apology for Christianity before the Caliph Mahdi, defends the eastward direction in prayer as a custom laid down by Christ himself.[13]

Didascalia Apostolorum, the third century document, insists on prayer towards the East:

            The Apostles, therefore, constituted: pray towards the East, because ‘as the lightning which lightens from the East, and is seen even to the West, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be’, that by this shall we know and understand that He appears from the East suddenly.[14]

The East was considered the abode of God:

            Indeed, it is required that you pray toward the East, as knowing that which is written: “Give glory to God, who rides upon the heaven of heavens toward the East”.[15]

St. Augustine provides us with an explicit reference to the prayer facing East: In the discourse on the Sermon on Mount Augustine says: “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the East.”[16]

Clement of Alexandria gives the following reasons for prayer facing East:

“…In correspondence with the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made towards the sunrise in the East. Whence also most ancient temples looked towards the West, that people might be taught to turn to the East when facing the images [of the gods.].[17]

The mystagogical catecheses of Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia speak about the symbolism of liturgical orientation in the baptismal rite. The catechumens turn towards the West in order to renounce satan and then performs a bodily conversion towards the East in order to give himself over to Christ.[18]

            St. John Damascene puts forward numerous arguments in favour of facing the East for prayer.  John bases the tradition on both Old Testament and New Testament texts. First of all the solar symbolism attributed to Christ (Mal 3:20) accounts for the symbolic significance of the East. The situation of the Eden in the East (Gen 2:8), the tent of Moses with curtain veil and propitiatory facing the East, the tribe of Judah encamped on the East side (cf. Nm 2:3), the Lord’s gate of the temple of Solomon, facing the East (cf.  44.1), Lord on the Cross looking toward the West, Lord raised towards the East during ascension (cf. Acts 1,11), Lord’s eschatological coming from the East (Mt 24,27) are all the basis for our worshipping him towards the East.  Most of these arguments have parallels in the East Syrian tradition, especially in the commentaries of the Anonymous Author and Abdišo of Nisibis.

            The 9th century East Syrian Anonymous Author, also known as Pseudo George of Arbel,  puts forward cosmological, christological, eschatological and soteriological arguments in favour of the prayer facing the East.  The ‘East’ has priority in the cosmic space.  The fact that the sun and the stars begin their course from the East constitutes the cosmological argument.[19] On earth itself the eastern region has priority. The christological argument is that Christ takes the place of sun.  The Jewish people saw the light coming to them through the prophets and priests, as if the stars that give light. [20] As regards the christological argument, Pseudo-George of Arbel refers to the OT authority like that of Ez 44,2-3 and Ps 48,33. The relation of the East to Paradise constitutes the eschatological argument. Paradise is the place of sanctity and immortality.  It is situated in the eastern region.  The primordial Paradise of the first parents is viewed also as the eschatological Paradise of our expectation. Therefore, Paradise located in the East is our hope.  The author of the Exposition thinks that we are now in Jerusalem.  Being in Jerusalem, our expectation is that we may receive Paradise as in the case of the good thief.[21] There is also a soteriological reason related to orientation in prayer.  Paradise, the place of our fall, becomes the place of our salvation too.  Adam was expelled from Paradise.  Since then we have been expecting reconciliation.  It is, therefore, right that we turn to the same place for the reconciliation, that is, turning ourselves in prayer toward Paradise which is in the eastern region.[22] The Anonymous Author summarises the importance of the East as follows:

Towards that we adore and contemplate, just as towards the superior place, the place of life, the place of the saints, the place from where we were expelled, the place from where rises the sun, from where we have the origin, the place praised by the Lord God through the prophets.[23]

Later we find a similar line of theological justification of turning to the East in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

            To adore facing East is fitting, first because the movement of the heavens which manifest the divine majesty is from the East. Secondly, paradise was situated in the East according to the Septuagint version of Genesis, and we seek to return to paradise. Thirdly, because of Christ, who is the light of the world and is called the orient, who mounteth above the heaven of heaven to the East, and is expected to come from the East according to Matthew, as lightning comes out of the East, and shines even to the West, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.[24]

Mar Abdišo of the 14th century deals with the eschatological significance of facing the East as follows:

This rule is, therefore, profitable in two ways; first, because it stirs up the remembrance of the end, and of the judgement to come, and which checks us from doing evil things; and, secondly, so that we may remember our old home, from which we were driven out on account of our sins, namely, Paradise, which is situated in the East, and thereby we are led to take refuge in repentance…And when our Lord ascended up to heaven, His face was turned towards the West, significant of His coming at the resurrection, and the disciples who were before Him, and looking at Him ascending, worshipped Him towards the East…[25]

Most of the ancient sources dealing with the question of turning to the East in prayer highlight the eschatological foundation of this liturgical gesture. Liturgical architecture was so developed that orientation in prayer was seen as a vital factor in the liturgical space. Though early Roman Basilicas had an architectural arrangement facilitating ‘priest’s facing the people’      posture gradually the church buildings in the East and West made it a point that the liturgical space provided for an easy orientation in prayer.  In case of the Roman basilicas with the apse on the Western side and the entrance of the church on the Eastern side, the congregation sometimes turned to the side of the open door to maintain the principle of prayer facing East. U.M. Lang speaks about the orientation of such liturgical assemblies: “During the Eucharistic liturgy the congregation would face the same direction as the celebrant, looking towards the open doors of the church through which the light of the rising sun, the symbol of the risen Christ and his second coming in glory, flooded into the nave.”[26]

            The prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy itself demanded turning towards the East. The Greek, Coptic and Ethiopian liturgies have diaconal exhortations to stand upright and look towards the East at the beginning or during the anaphora. In the Egyptian liturgy of Saint Mark the deacon announces before the introduction to the Trisagion: ‘You who are seated, stand up…attend to the East.”[27] Robert Taft maintains that in the dialogue preceding the anaphora, common to all liturgical traditions, the response ‘Habemus ad Dominum’ that follows the invitation ‘Sursum corda’ implies that the congregation would face the East. In the early Church this lifting up of hearts was accompanied by expressive bodily gestures: standing upright, raising one’s arms, looking upward, and most likely, turning towards the East.[28]

3. Theological Significance of Prayer Facing the East

Though Christians are indebted to the pre-Christian religions for the practice of turning to the East in prayer, Christians have given a radically new meaning to the liturgical gesture. Though in the history of religions the practice of facing East in prayer is based on the solar symbolism, in the Christian tradition the insistence on facing East in prayer is founded upon the concern of turning towards the Lord. The Christian practice of facing East in prayer has a rich meaning of cosmic, ecclesial, eschatological and sacrificial dimensions.

3.1. Turning towards the Lord

The Church has given a thoroughly new interpretation to the symbolic gesture of facing East.  Turning to the East in prayer primarily means turning to the Lord. When compared to the practice of non-Christian religions, Christian practice was not centred on a strictly cultic concern towards the geographical East. It is not at all a question of attributing sacredness to a particular part of the space. East symbolized the space of the Lord, and therefore, turning towards the East had the central concern of turning towards the Lord. This aspect of turning towards the Lord is a foundational reality of the Christian liturgy. Sometimes the question of the authentic geographical East was not insisted and the congregation together with the priest turned towards one direction, even when it was not the geographical East, viewing it as the symbolic East. U.M. Lang finds this turning to the Lord in liturgy as a sublime action of the Church: “In this liturgical gesture the Church turns to her source of life, the risen and ascended Lord, whose return she desires and expects.”[29]

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger asks the faithful to review the question of facing in the liturgy in an entirely new perspective. We need not be any more worried about facing the East or facing the people. But our concern should be to talk about facing the Lord. “…it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.”[30]

Turning to the Lord in prayer has necessary eschatological and ecclesial dimensions. Waiting for the second coming of the Lord is an essential characteristic of Christian life. The Christian liturgy is marked by this eschatological waiting. Thus the Christian practice of Orientation in prayer goes beyond the sphere of worship and embraces the entire Christian life. It is the sign of the spiritual movement of the Church towards God (versus Deum). Eucharistic liturgy is the common act of worship where the priest and the people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God. Orientation in prayer is indeed a great help to an ecclesial assembly which has the tendency to stress more and more the life of the community here and now, ignoring the eschatological concern.

3.2. Cosmic Dimension of Turning to the East

Cardinal Ratzinger points to the cosmic symbolism involved in the turning to the East. By means of a liturgical gesture, the true location and the true context of the Eucharist are opened up, namely, the whole cosmos.  The cosmic sign of the sun rising from the East has been interpreted in two ways: first, as a sign of the risen Christ and thus also of the Father’s power and the working of the Holy Spirit; second, as a sign of hope in the parousia.[31] Through the gesture of facing East in prayer the liturgical assembly is enabled to view the cosmos as a platform to ascend to heaven.  Our liturgical space ceases to be the simple church building with its walls and floors. The entire universe becomes part of the liturgical space, an open platform extended to the heavenly altar.

3.3. Ecclesial Dimension of Turning to the East

The practice of priest and people facing the same way during the Eucharistic liturgy expresses the nature of the Eucharist as a common act of Trinitarian worship. The orientation in prayer has the necessary ecclesial bearing in the sense that the Church is seen as a single reality, in which both the priest and the people are united in Christ and move towards the Lord. Thus the orientation in prayer may be seen as a practice very much useful to maintain a proper understanding of the eschatological and ecclesial characteristics of the worshipping assembly.

            When the entire celebration is versus populum, it tends to diminish the transcendent dimension of the Eucharist to such an extent that it generates the notion of a closed society. It is true that the versus populum contributes significantly to the communal character of the liturgy. But it is only one aspect of the liturgy. The danger is that the congregation can become complacent and entertain a misconceived autonomy, thus disconnecting itself from the other assemblies of the faithful and from the invisible assembly of the saints in heaven. So the community would just be in dialogue with itself.[32]

M. Metzger makes the following observation on the posture of the priest during the celebration of the Eucharist: “The priest does not celebrate the Eucharist ‘facing the people’ rather, the whole congregation celebrates facing God, through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit”.[33] According to Metzger, the common direction of prayer towards the East is the supreme purification of this spatial representation of God.[34]

The whole liturgical assembly, priest and people, should face the same way, turning towards God to whom prayers and offerings are addressed in this common act of Trinitarian worship.[35] The Eucharist is the common act of worship where priest and people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God.

3.4. The Eschatological Dimension of Turning to East

The eschatological dimension of facing East in prayer is very clear in the texts of the prayers as well as in the theological writings. The orientation of prayer reaches beyond the visible altar towards eschatological fulfilment, which is anticipated in the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar leads the people of God on their way towards meeting the Lord who is to come again. This is a movement towards the Lord, who is the rising sun of history.[36] The Congregation for Divine Worship points out the necessary eschatological dimension of the Eucharistic celebration in the editorial of Notitiae, the official publication of the Congregation:

“The arrangement of the altar in such a way that the celebrant and the faithful face eastward brings to light the ‘parousial’ character of Eucharist, for the mystery of Christ is being celebrated donec veniat in caelis. It is only during the dialogue parts of the mass that the priest addresses himself to the people. Apart from this, he prays to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”[37]

According to U.M. Lang, “for the Christians of the first millennium or so, the East had a very distinctive theological and liturgical significance: facing East in prayer embodied their lively hope for the second coming of the risen and ascended Christ in glory, to judge the living and the dead; it also symbolized the journey of the pilgrim people of God towards the future bliss promised to them, a foretaste of which was made present in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice.”[38]

3.5. Sacrificial Dimension of Turning to the East

            The common direction in liturgical prayer is closely linked to the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice.  Jungmann observes that patristic evidence for the eastward position of the celebrant is strongest where the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist was clearly developed at an early stage, particularly in Syria. The basic principle that the celebrant at the altar should take a God-ward stance at prayer and face the same way as the people expresses the character of the Mass as an offering to God.[39] Jungmann notes that since the third century, the Eucharist has been named prosphora, anaphora, and oblation, terms that basically convey the idea of ‘bringing to’ ‘presenting’, and thus of a movement towards God.[40] In the Syriac tradition the most popular term Qurbana has a similar meaning in the pael form of the term (Qareb), that is ‘bringing’ or ‘carrying forward’. According to Klaus Gamber, the person who is doing the offering is facing the one who is receiving the offering; thus, he stands before the altar, positioned ad Dominum, facing the Lord.[41]


The liturgical gesture of turning to the East is indeed a precious treasure of the liturgical heritage of the universal Church. It is a vital sign which Christianity shares with other religions. When Christians make use of this gesture in liturgy, it should have a radically new Christian meaning.  Turning to the East should become for the believers an experience of turning to the Lord who is coming to judge us in the second coming. This gesture becomes relevant today only when it contributes to a better understanding of the Church as a single body of the priest and the faithful rendering worship to the Trinitarian God, and also to a better understanding of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and the eschatological awareness of the believers. This gesture becomes a great spiritual value for us today if it enables us to see the entire cosmos as the true liturgical space, open to the heavenly altar.

Turning to the Lord is a dynamic gesture. This turning is a movement. Church, as a pilgrim community (SC 8) is marching toward the eschatological communion with the Lord. The Church is not just a static and closed community united by the hierarchy. It is a dynamic and open community moving towards the Lord who unites it as a body. If the turning to the East in liturgy enables us for such a movement, it is of immense spiritual value, and hence a precious sign in the Church.


[1]F.J. Dölger, Sol Salutis: Gebet und Gesang im christlichen Altertum: Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Ostung in Gebet und Liturgie, 2nd ed., Münster 1925, 233-286.

[2]RV I.188.4; III.1.2; III.6.1; III.6.10; V.28.1.

[3] U.M. Lang, Turning towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, San Francisco 2009, 36. (Hereafter cited as Lang, Turning towards the Lord)

[4] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, p.43.

[5] See B. Holmberg, ‘Ahl/fariq at-tayman – ein rätselvolles Epitheton’, Oriens Christianus 78 (1994): 90-95.

[6] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, p.37.

[7] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, pp.37-38.

[8] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, pp.45.

[9]Martyrium Pauli 5: ed. Lipsius 115, 13-14.

[10] Tertullian, Ad nationes, I, 13. CSEL, 20, 83-84; Apologeticum 16, 9-11: CSEL 69, 43-44.

[11] Origen, De Oratione 32: GCS Orig. II, 400, 21-26.

[12]Hom. Im Num. V, 1: GCS Orig. VII, 26.14-27.3.

[13]Timothy, Apology for Christianity: ed., A. Mingana, The Apology of Timothy the Patriarch before Caliph Mahdi, Wood St. vol. 2, I, Cambridge 1928, 29.

[14]A. Vööbus, ed. & trans., The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, CSCO 401/402, 406/407; syri 175/176,179/180, Louvain 1979, 36-37 (Hereafter cited as Didascalia).

[15]Didascalia, 131.

[16] Augustine, De sermon domini in monte II, 5,18: CChr SL 35, 108.

[17]Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VII, 7, 43, 6-7: GCS Clem. Alex. III, 32-33.

[18] F.J. Dölger, Die Sonne der Gerechtigkeit und der Schwarze: Eine Religionsgeschichtliche Studie zum Taufgelöbnis, LF 2. Münster 1918.

[19]Expositio I, 88.

[20]Expositio I, 88-89; Syr. text, 110.

[21]Expositio I, 88.

[22] Cf. Expositio I, 89.

[23]Expositio I, 90; Syr. text, 112.

[24] Thomas Aquinas, S.Th. II-II, q. 84, a. 3 ad 3.

[25]Abdišo (Mar O’dishoo), The Book of Marganitha (The Pearl) on the Truth of Christianity, trans., E. Shimun, Ernakulam 1965, 65.

[26] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 83-84.  See also T. Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy: An Account and Some Reflections, Oxford 1979, 144; J.A. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy: To the Time of Gregory the Great, University of Notre Dame Press, 1980, 137.

[27] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 53.

[28]R.F. Taft, “The Dialgue before the Anaphora in the Byzantine Eucharistic Liturgy, II: The Sursum corda”, OCP 54 (1988) 74-75.

[29] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, p.140.

[30]J.Ratzinger, Spirit of Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, 174.

[31] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 106.

[32] Cf. Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, 142-143; J.A. Jungmann, review of O. Nußbaum, Der Standort des Liturgen am christlichen Altar vor dem Jahre 1000, ZKTh 88 (1966), 449; Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 108-109.

[33] M. Metzger, “La Place des liturgies a l’autel”, RevSR 45 (1971) 141.

[34] M. Metzger, “La Place des liturgies a l’autel”, RevSR 45 (1971) 141.

[35] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, p.32.

[36] Cf. Ratzinger, Spirit of Liturgy, 84.

[37]Translating Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramentorum, ‘Editoriale’,  Notitiae 29 (1993) 245-246.

[38] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 103-104.

[39] Lang, Turning towards the Lord, 115-116.

[40]Jungmann, “Der neue Altar’, 377.

[41] K. Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy:  Its Problems and Backgrounds, San Juan Capistrano 1993, 178.

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