Pastoral Perspectives

Orientation in Prayer, Orientation in Life

For some of us more rational minded Christians, it might strike as peculiar that the Old Testament saint Daniel would open his windows three times daily and pray toward Jerusalem, doing so even on the pain of death. We wonder what good does facing Jerusalem add to his prayers to God? Surely God is everywhere and the orientation which we face during prayer matters little to his reception of them?

Perhaps if we were to examine his actions psychologically, they may make more sense. If I were my grandfather who travelled to this part of Nanyang from Swatow in his youth in search of a better life, I might have occasionally open the windows of my shophouse and gaze in the direction of my homeland, reminiscing my childhood amongst the rivers and plains of my village. A look into the horizon in the orientation would seem to draw me closer to the place of which I yearn for but cannot return to. Certainly, that would have been true of Daniel, who was forcibly brought to Babylon from Jerusalem in his youth. Would he not have missed his homeland terribly every day, and wanted a sense of closeness to it with an unobstructed gaze into the horizon?

Perhaps so. However, his actions seem to indicate more than a mere wistful gaze. Rather, it would strike one as a ritual action suffused with meaning and purpose, and not merely done out of sentimentalism. For would one not keep one’s sentimentalism under check on the pain of death? Yet Daniel continued his daily routine regardless. What he was doing was deeply liturgical and harked back to King Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8.48-9):

… if they repent with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name,  then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, and maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you…

Daniel’s action of orienting himself toward Jerusalem is derived from Solomon’s prayer and it is an embodiment of the hope that God will one day restore his nation and return to his people.

More importantly (and this is something us rational persons will have difficulty grasping), while God may be everywhere and filling all things (1 Kings 8.27), God chose to be present for Israel in the temple in Jerusalem (8.29). That was the place where God chose to be for his people, hence the temple was the sacramental location to which his people had access to him. This was why Solomon would have the people of Israel orient themselves spiritually and physically toward the temple in Jerusalem in prayer (1 Kings 8.31-51). All the Jews in the diaspora after the exile held on to this understanding. While not being able to access a temple, they built synagogues that were oriented toward Jerusalem and prayed in that direction day and night, never losing sight of the hope that God would one day carry them back there. In one simple action of physically orienting oneself to Jerusalem, one recalled the past promises of God for the present in order that one may live into the future.

It may come as a surprise to most of us that, like Daniel and the diaspora Jews, the early Christians also oriented themselves toward a single direction during their prayer. They did not face Jerusalem but the east. In fact, the term “orient” originated from the Latin oriens which means “rising”, in reference to the direction whence the sun rises: the east. Hence, Christians prayed ad orientem, or toward the east. This is expressed in how many older churches were constructed – the length of the church ran from west to east, and the people gathered in the nave facing east for their services. While most contemporary churches are no longer built in such a manner (including ours), we still term the end of the church which the congregation faces the “liturgical East”.

Why the fuss about orientation? The early Christians did so because it was an action that had meaning and purpose. While they could have continued this manner of praying from Jewish practice, they gave it new meaning in light of Christ’s fulfilment of the old covenant. The rising of the sun in the east dispelled the darkness of night, symbolic of new birth, of Christ as the light of the world, and of the dawning of truth in Christ. Furthermore, Christ himself said, “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.” Here, Jesus’ metaphorical self-description of his second advent has been symbolised in the ritual action of ad orientem. Hence, ad orientem is really also ad dominum, a turning towards God who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

More than vanity, the direction faced when praying tacitly reminded early Christians of the Christ event and Christ’s promise that he will come again. In this sense it is eschatological. When Christians gather in a church, where they face is the symbolic direction from which Christ will return. This symbolism is especially striking should one walk into a medieval church in the morning. The sun would have risen and shone into the stained-glass window on the east-end, producing a magnificent sight for the gathered people and reminding them of the glorious return of Christ. The gathered people then become the called-out people of God who are awaiting the return of Christ as expressed in their corporate orientation toward the compass/liturgical east. This direction orients all our present prayers in which they are prayed in remembrance of the past work of Christ and directs them toward our future eschatological hope in Christ. In so doing, it also orients our entire lives toward the risen and coming Christ. Just as Daniel took his entire life’s orientation from the hope he had in God’s promise to restore Israel, so also we take our orientation from the fact that Christ has died and is risen, and the hope that Christ will come again.

Mr Png Eng Keat

August 18, 2019