There is a common myth that has spread throughout the Latin Church, and unfortunately in Latinized Eastern Catholic Churches, that claims that the reason why the priest used to pray “facing away from the people” was so that the congregation would not feel worthy to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice. Therefore, Vatican 2 came to change that in order to fulfill its request to have “active participation.”
While we will not cover the details of what “active participation” truly meant in its proper context, we will give details in regards to why the Church originally prays facing Eastward.
It is Biblical: All throughout scripture, it is suggested that we pray towards the East. Examples from the Old Testament include Ezekiel 43:4 in where he saw the glory of God coming from the East:
“And the glory of the Lord came into the house, by the way of the gate looking eastward:”
In ancient Jewish worship of the New Testament, it was commanded that the ancient liturgy which prefigured the eternal Divine Liturgy of the New Testament face East:
“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).
Therefore, the Church is continuing in the practices of it’s Jewish heritage. Not only that, it is also facing East to face Christ Himself.
“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)
“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, 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)
“…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) Note: Christ Ascended on the Mount of Olives, and when He returns, He will be on a cloud coming from the East. (Luke 21:27).
You may be asking: “But didn’t Jesus face the apostles during the Last Supper, the very first Divine Liturgy?” In response, the ancient Jewish tables all had dinner on the same exact side to provide access for the servers, therefore Jesus sat on the same side as the Apostles.
St. John Damascus further explains in Book IV, Chapter 12 why we pray towards the East:
“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: O 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.”