Facing “the Orient.”
It’s what we do in life. It’s what we do in death.
As we celebrate All Saint’s Day we remember that our dead are buried Ad Orientem. Ever notice that? How the cemetery is laid out? When the casket is put into the ground the dead are facing east. Jesus said, “As the lightning comes from east and flashes to west, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:27) Jesus is coming from the east, and so we are buried in this hope. God will return and we are eager and ready to see Him.
We also face east in worship. Even if churches aren’t oriented that way, the books still call wherever the altar is “the easterly direction.” East is the place where the sun rises, where Jesus rose from the dead, and where Jesus will come again.
In the midst of his captivity, as he served a foreign king, Daniel faced east. Three times a day he went up to his room and opened his windows toward Jerusalem. By this action Daniel confessed that his life was more than what he was presently experiencing. In his prayers Daniel faced the place where the temple stood, where sacrifices took place, where his sins, and the sins of his people were atoned for, where God dwelt. Daniel was, for now, separated from that place, but he lived in hope that one day he would return. Daniel’s prayers were about more than was happening in his little room.
Last spring in a chance encounter I met a woman who asked me a question that she had wanted to ask a Lutheran for a long while. She had experienced Roman Catholic worship as a child. The priest faced the people for the entire service. She had once attended a Lutheran church. “It seemed so cold,” she said. “The pastor was up in front doing his own thing while the people were far away in their pews, kind of left out.”
I told her that worship is about what is beyond us, about what we cannot yet see. Facing east is not a celebration toward the wall or that the pastor has his back toward the people. It means that worship is more than what happens in our little circle. The pastor is less the focus. What is less important is what is done by human beings. What is most important is what God does. The pastor and people together face east. The pilgrim people of God look together at what lies before and above us.
In a way Jesus faced east too. “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) As we gather to commemorate All Saints’ Day (Nov. 4) we remember those among us who have died this past year. As we remember Shirley Emley, David Torke, and Fritz Beyer, we remember how we all “face east.” Together as one people, living and departed, we travel forward to what is ahead and beyond.