Why Do Orthodox Christians Pray Facing East and Why Does the Priest not Face the People When He Prays?

I have a pet saying that I like to tell to my parishioners:
“The priest prays for the people, and with the people, but not instead of the people”.
I usually admonish them with this saying when I am announcing one of the very rare occasions when I will be gone on a weekend, to teach them that they are responsible for prayer in the church; this is not something that is the sole responsibility of the clergy. I am trying to minimize any of the mice “playing” when the cat is away!
My little aphorism is not just an admonishment; it is also shows the equality of the clergy and the people when we are addressing our prayers to God.
With rare exceptions, the priest (and deacon and bishop), with the people face toward the East when they pray. “East” is, liturgically, in the direction of the altar, whether it faces true East or not. In a traditional church, “built from scratch” the altar always is to the East; in our modern world, where there are many buildings that are modified to use in worship, sometimes it is not possible for the altar to face true East.  If there is no altar present (such as when we have molebens in front of the cross on our land in McKinney, where God willing, we will have a new temple built by late summer 2009), everybody still faces in the same direction.
Facing East is an ancient tradition, grounded in sure knowledge about the Second Coming, first told us by the Lord, and then repeated by an angel after the disciples had just seen the Lord ascend into heaven:
“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)
“…Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
We believe that our Lord ascended on the Mount of Olives, and when He comes back, He will come on a cloud from the East. Therefore, we face East when we pray.
There are other important biblical references to the East. The following is a NON-comprehensive list.
The wise men saw signs of the imminent birth of Christ from the East:
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,  (2)  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Mat 2:1-2)
Ezekiel saw the “glory of the Lord” when facing East:
“And the glory of the Lord came into the house, by the way of the gate looking eastward:” (Eze 43:4 Brenton)
The Jews faced Eastward during their worship:
“And if the prince should prepare as a thanksgiving a whole-burnt-peace-offering to the Lord, and should open for himself the gate looking eastward, and offer his whole-burnt-offering, and his peace-offerings, as he does on the sabbath-day; then shall he go out, and shall shut the doors after he has gone out.” (Eze 46:12 Brenton)
There are lots of references in the Fathers to prayer facing East (see the end of this essay for an excerpt from St John of Damascus concerning this.) It has been a uniform part of our tradition since BEFORE Apostolic times.
When the people pray, they all pray together. We are all God’s children.
Does it make any sense for the people to face God, and the celebrant to turn his back to God during prayer? He cannot lead prayer when facing the people; he becomes a focal point for prayer; the people are facing him!
One can see how dangerous this practice of having the celebrant face the people by observing the excesses that have occurred in the sectarian churches. Just driving down the road and looking at billboards shows that the “mega churches” do not share our “mind”. Their billboards feature prominently the picture of the pastor, usually with his pretty wife and 2 pretty children, a boy and a girl, all smiling beatifically at the masses, or perhaps some other “beautiful person” gushing about how they have finally found a church they can believe in. So much of, (what shall we call it? “mainstream” or “sectarian” or “Protestant”) worship has become about personality. At look at the “mega” and even small country churches shows a wholly different way of worship than the ancient Jewish/Orthodox way. The “altar’ area is a stage, flanked with large TV screens, which show flattering close-ups of the pastor as he preaches, or the music minister as he performs.
This way of “worship” is really a form of entertainment. What can it teach the people? And what are all these ministers doing smiling so much at their audience, as if they are entertainers or salesmen? This type of worship is without significant substance, and often is directed to a passive audience, rooted in their theater chairs. Ironically, some of these churches which consider themselves to be “Apostolic” do not realize that their way of worship is far removed from that of the Apostles! And don’t even get me started about the theological content of the songs being sung today! As the music minister smiles and performs, a stream of pablum, to catchy melodies,  with drum rolls and guitar riffs, is being fed to the seated masses (to be fair, not all “Protestant” worship is like this, (some is quite sober and dignified) but the TV stuff is very common in many local churches.)
Contrast this with true, traditional Orthodox worship. The celebrant stands, usually in front of the altar, with a serious and sober demeanor, and the people stand with him, all symbolically facing God, to the East. The people much about piety from the way the celebrant and deacons serve. All is done carefully, soberly, with thought and good order.
Even the Roman Catholics have begun to realize the excesses that can happen when the priest faces the people when he liturgizes. The current Pope (Benedict) is a strong advocate of ending this innovation and he celebrates the liturgy facing, with the people, in the direction of the altar.
When the pastor teaches, he faces the people. This was the Jewish way as well; Christian worship is inherently Jewish. For everything, there is a time and a season, and when the pastor teaches, he faces the people, so they can hear his exhortations. It makes no sense (and is rude) to speak to people with our back to them; in the same way, it makes no sense, and is rude, for us to pray to God while turning our back to Him.
Concerning Worship towards the East
by St. John of Damascus, Book IV, Chapter 12
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the Mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.
Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: 0 sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West.
So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland.
Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East.
Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East.
Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward.
Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him.
And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.
So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.
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  1. Quality article. It’s to be noted that at the de-Christianizing Second Vatican Council, the Latin church turned around its altar tables and had its celebrants facing away from God and facing the people so as to have a . . . “dialogue.” The Protestant-like “reformers” justified this change by claiming that they were restoring the practice of the ancient church. However, the ancient church never had this practice. The practice of facing the people originated with Martin Luther. The practice of the ancient church was always facing away from the congregation and facing towards God.

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