This thought, or at least the thought to put the thought into writing, came to me recently while reading the following scripture:
‘But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! Have regard to your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you. May your eyes be open day and night towards this house, the place where you promised to set your name, and may you heed the prayer that your servant prays towards this place. And hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray towards this place; may you hear from heaven your dwelling-place; hear and forgive.
~ 2 Chronicles 6:18-21
The direction of prayer, it seems, was part of Israel’s liturgy, and it is obviously rife with significance. One prays in the direction of an object of prayer naturally, and thus in praying consciously in a direction facing something, we are implicitly praying ‘towards’ it. As Pope Benedict XVI has noted:
Judaism and Islam, now as in the past, take it for granted that we should pray towards the central place of revelation, to the God who has revealed himself to us, in the manner and in the place in which he revealed himself. By contrast, in the Western world, an abstract way of thinking, which in a certain way is the fruit of Christian influence, has become dominant. God is spiritual, and God is everywhere: does that not mean that prayer is not tied to a particular place or direction?
~Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 75
Of course, this was an important theme in other episodes of the Scriptures. For example, when God commanded Israel to pray facing towards the crafted image of a bronze serpent (Numbers 21:8-9). There is a great deal of meaning in praying towards something. Just as man’s body language is significant (it ‘signifies’), so also the communal language of worship, which is called ‘Liturgy’, is a form of language, a way in which man uses every form of communication (body language, music, prayer, symbolic acts and so on) to speak, even sing, to God. Perhaps it is best to call the liturgy more than mere speech or song: in the Catholic tradition it is understood first of all to be ‘prayer’ in its richest form. Of course, the early Christians adopted or inherited their liturgy from Israel, and it is often forgotten that they too were concerned about where to orient the direction of their prayer, their Liturgy. Where did Christianity pray towards?
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
The Christian conviction was to face East, and this is deeply consonant with a Christian integration of cosmology and salvation history. Not only did Christ indicate that his return would be ‘from the east’ but the theme of connecting the ‘east’ with heaven is a Biblical one. Notice, for instance, that the Garden of Eden is described as a Garden planted ‘in the east’. This Garden was the idealized place where man and God met face to face and walked in fellowship – and it only makes sense that the book of Hebrews connotes that Christ is the Garden of Eden, as he is the ‘rest’ of God (See Hebrews 4:1-11). There are other images in the scriptures as well (see Ezekiel 44:1-3). Notice that the Garden of Eden theme was central to Jewish liturgy; not only was the Sabbath important (the day on which God rested), but the Temple in Jerusalem which Solomon built (as is the context of 2 Chronicles 6) was architecturally patterned on the description of the Garden. Walking into the Temple was supposed to be a typifying fore-taste of the past, and it was the reality of communion with God which was the aim and significance of Torah. For instance, the way in which a Jewish celebrant was likely to have understood the Torah’s prohibitions on foods was not supposed to be health-advice from a ‘Divine Nutritionist,’ but rather a recalling of God’s contingency-criteria in the Garden: do not eat of this tree or else by it you will be rejecting my covenanting presence with you. Much of the richness of this Liturgy is preserved in the Catholic mass, though transformed by the good news of Christ. The point of this post, however, is simply to point out that the direction of prayer is significant in Christian tradition. Traditionally Churches have been built to face the East, to face the rising sun. Sometimes this is connected with pagan practices of sun-worship or something of the sort. However, people fail to see that in the case of the ancient Christians, as for all other ancient peoples/pagans, they had a “fully-integrated” system of Cosmology (as an intelligent Graduate student I know often says). That means that Christians were invited to interpret the whole Cosmos with the vocabulary of the Christian story and typology. This theme is one I’ve made passing remarks to before, as I think it is this notion of cosmic liturgy which provides the logic of events such as the ascension skyward of the resurrected Christ.
Consider what an apt image the sun is for the glory of ‘truth’. Truth brings enlightenment, and even intellectual apprehension is naturally called ‘sight’ (for instance, when somebody, thinking over some puzzle, eventually solves it and exclaims ‘aha, I see‘). Christians not only pray in the direction of the East because of the Sun, nor only because East is where Christ is to appear, but rather the sun rises in the East and Christ is to appear in the East precisely because human liturgy is supposed to take it’s cue from cosmology, and salvation history directs man to join that same dance of the planets and stars. I think of C.S. Lewis who said:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else
The sun rising again is intended to recall the image of the resurrection of Christ, and indeed the resurrection which the Christian hope looks forward to. Indeed, Christians used to maintain the tradition of burying their dead along an east-west axis, so that they would rise again in the resurrection facing the rising sun. Such practices were, far from adaptations of Paganism, a natural way for Christians to read the art of creation in light of the Christian story. It is modern man who has lost this insight, that cosmology is designed by God for the purpose of inviting man into Liturgy (this conviction lies behind the first chapter of Genesis as well), and instead modern man is lost in the cosmos.
As Pope Benedict XVI continues from his previous remark:
Just as God assumed a body and entered the time and space of this world, so it is appropriate to prayer – at least to communal liturgical prayer – that our speaking to God should be “incarnational,” that it should be Christological, turned through the incarnate Word to the Triune God. The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places and yet maintains the concreteness of divine revelation. Our praying is thus inserted into the procession of the nations to God.
~Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 75-76