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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

09 February 2006

Facing East in Prayer

Q: Does the Bible specify any particular direction to face during prayer? Almost all churches here in India have the priest or pastor facing east during the service. Is there any biblical significance to this practice?

Prayer of the SpinnerA: Unlike Islam and some other religions, Christianity has no set orientation for prayer. This is especially true for private or family prayer, where we may sit, stand, or kneel and take our thoughts and feelings to God. Likewise, there is no commanded posture. I mentioned sitting, standing, and kneeling. Some raise hands. Some fold them. Some press them together. I do all, depending upon circumstances.

The direction and the posture should help to focus on the content of the prayer. This is most likely why your church faces east. This practice is common all over the world. Many buildings are oriented so the altar is at the east, the direction of the rising sun. This is a physical reminder of the rising of the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ. Since He brings life and light, and since the endless day of heaven is part of our faith, facing east and the rising sun reminds the faithful that Christ has risen from the dead, that He rises in our hearts, and that He will return to raise us from the dead to live with Him in heaven.

After general persecution of Christianity ended, permanent structures were erected throughout Christendom. Churches built north of the equator, where Christianity had its roots, expanded on the eastward orientation of Christian architecture. Even if the building physically aligns in a different direction, the end with the altar is called “east.” Some churches still follow the ancient practice of reading the Epistle (and Old Testament) on the “south” side, which is also called the Epistle side. The pastor or priest then moves to the “north” (the Gospel) side to read the day’s Gospel. This follows the natural pattern, where the sun tracks through the southern sky in the northern hemisphere, shining its light from south into the north. So also the light of Christ’s Gospel — it shines forth from its natural, heavenly home into the darkest “north,” country, where sin and death are put to flight.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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