Why Orthodox Churches Face East
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
By Robert Latsko, M.Div., M.Arch.
This writing first appeared in "Metanoia", the monthly bulletin of St. George Orthodox Church in Wichita, Kansas in 1988.
Most everyone knows that an Orthodox church building should face toward the east. Not many, however, know the reasons why. A common misunderstanding is that a church building should face east because that is the direction toward Jerusalem (much like the Muslim understanding that mosques should face Mecca). This understanding is not only wrong in terms of geography (in some parts of the world the direction toward Jerusalem is north or south or west) but also in terms of theology. There is no one place in this world that can claim to be holier than any other because is has "more" of God's presence. Jesus Christ is present in all Orthodox churches ("For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" - Matthew 18:20) - and in all people who have united themselves to God throughout the world.
The correct understanding of why a church building should face east is rooted in the understanding that the east is the symbol of light, good and truth while the west is the symbol of darkness, evil and error. In the book of Genesis we read that "the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put man whom he had formed." (Genesis 2:8) But Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden (from Paradise) because they had sinned - leading the whole world into the experience of sin, darkness and death. Some of our Orthodox church hymns speaks about Adam sitting outside of Paradise, weeping and lamenting, longing to be readmitted to that Paradise that God planted for him in the east.
Listen to Fr. Thomas Hopko speak about this here.
Our churches face east because we also await with longing that time when all people will again be citizens of Paradise. This symbolic understanding that the east is good while the west is evil is particularly obvious during the sacrament of Baptism. During the rite of exorcism the person who is to be baptized (and his or her sponsor) faces the west to renounce Satan and to spit on him. When a person is baptized in the blessed waters of the baptismal font the priest does it with the person-to-be-baptized looking toward the east. There are, therefore liturgical reasons why a church building should face toward the east.
The east has significance also because Jesus Christ is the "Light of the World" (John 9:5) and is spoken of in the Bible is terms of the sun (which always rises in the east). He is referred to as both the "Sun of Righteousness" (Malachi 4:2) and the "Dayspring From on High" (Luke 1: 78). When our church buildings face east, then, we (the people in the church building) symbolically orient ourselves toward Jesus Christ - anticipating the time when He will come again from the east. "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)
Christ's Second Coming will usher in what we now call "the age to come" - that which we speak about at the conclusion of the Nicene Creed: "I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world (or age) to come." Will we have church buildings in the world to come? Maybe, but one thing is for certain: they won't have to face the east anymore because there will be nothing more to anticipate! God will be all in all and the whole world (universe) will become God's Kingdom. At this present stage of God's providential plan, however, we are still anticipating that time, and so we continue to orient our churches to the east.