Saturday, December 1, 2012

Advent: Facing East as We Await the Light

Christ the King Retreat Center

“For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:27)

A little-known fact to many Christians today is the practice of early believers facing east when they prayed. Of course as they sought to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), throughout the day, facing whatever direction they happened to be while they walked or worked or spent time with family, praying to the Lord in all their activity.

However, when the believers of the first centuries of the church went apart for specific times of prayer, they faced east. We read about this practice in many of the early Christian writings. Also archeological digs have discovered that the homes of the early believers in Egypt often had a room set aside for prayer which allowed the Christians to have solitude with the Lord as well as to focus toward the east in their devotional times. [1]

“Orienting” our Lives
The classic term for the “East” is the “Orient.” This term refers to all of the lands spreading from the Near East across Asia to the Far East. Coming from this term, to gain one’s bearings is to “orient” oneself. To know where the points of the compass are, we must know where the orient—the east—is.

Early Christians, then, oriented their prayer lives by praying while they faced east. The symbolism is powerful! First, the east is where the sun rises. So facing east faces us toward the light and invites us to orient our lives toward the eternal Light. “God is Light; in him there is no darkness at all,” states 1 John 1:5. Further, James reminds us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down form the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (1:17).

Second, the Garden of Eden was in the east (Gen 2:8). As we face east we remind ourselves of the fellowship between God and humanity that was intended for us. Through the redemptive work of Christ, we too are invited to walk with God in the cool of the evening, as it were, and enjoy sweet communion with our Creator.

Third, Jesus’ life, passion and resurrection took place in Galilee and Judea, which are for most of us to the east. As we face east in our prayer, we remind ourselves that our salvation is based entirely on Christ Jesus.

Finally, facing east reminds us to fix our hope on Christ’s coming! “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). Orienting my body to the east each day helps me to orient my whole life to Christ’s return. His return is my ultimate hope and the culmination of all history! [2]

Advent: Reorienting Our Lives toward the Light
Although the calendar year does not begin until January, the new church year begins now with Advent. This makes sense: the whole of the Christian life starts with the anticipation of the celebration of our Lord’s birth.

Advent is an opportunity to reorient our lives. These four weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas are an opportunity to regain our spiritual bearings. The Advent season is a time for longing for more of the Lord, seeking God afresh, as well as reordering and reorienting our lives toward Christ.

As Advent begins, some good reflect questions are: Although I claim to be a Christian, how is my life truly oriented? What direction is my life headed? Where am I doing well in my pilgrimage with the Lord and where have I lost my inner compass? Am I journeying with God as I claim to be, or have I become waylaid on a path that is leading in the wrong direction? What must I do to regain my orientation to the Lord?

Advent is a time of looking for the light. As I have my devotions during these dark mornings, I find myself spontaneously looking toward the eastern horizon, waiting and longing to see the first hint of light each morning. During these four weeks of Advent, the eyes of my heart in like manner look forward to the coming of the Light of the World!

[1] Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 54.
[2] These thoughts on the east are adapted from Bunge, pp. 57-71.

© 2012 Glenn E. Myers

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