The traditional posture of prayer is facing eastward and with good reason. The sun rises in the east and represents the great hope of the new day. No matter how crushing yesterday may have been, the sunrise indicates a new beginning. Each day we awaken to new possibilities, a new creation, a new opportunity to see brokenness healed. I think one reason I find the early morning hours so exhilarating is that the great potential of all I am dealing with lies ahead. I have a fresh perspective brought about by rest. And there is just something invigorating about a sunrise. The light takes over the darkness, the birds chime in, and all things seem much more possible than they did the night before. No wonder the designers of our ceiling stencils at St. John’s way back in 1869 thought to include a sunburst. Our lives rotate around a living and loving force which made the sun and all the cosmos. That force will make today all that it can be.
Church architects have traditionally positioned the altar at the east end of churches. It plays into our eastward facing posture of prayer. Some churches, for various reasons, don’t have their altars at the east end. St. John’s is one such church. The original church building faced eastward but when the site was secured for the larger building in the 1850s, in order that the church open onto Madison Avenue, it was necessary for the church to face north. In the churches where the altar is not actually at the east end, liturgists coined the phrase “liturgical east” to connect us to the traditional posture of prayer. In reality St. John’s faces north. Liturgically St. John’s and all churches face eastward.
The Christian faith teaches us to be hopeful, ingrains within us a positive attitude. The Holy Scriptures, Old and New, are full of worst case scenarios which somehow lead to overall goodness. It’s not that God picks on us with hardship. Life deals out hardships and God transforms all things into places where his love and redemption are revealed. Nothing separates us from God, no matter how horrible that something may be, because God will not be held separate. The Cross of Christ is the greatest illustration of such remarkable transformation. God sends his Son to us in love. We conspire to kill him. And God raises him up so that we may be forgiven. God offers his best. We offer our worst. And God responds with his very best once again. We can’t top God’s goodness with any sin or evil. Goodness triumphs in the end: that’s the Gospel Truth.
So what’s your traditional posture? Are you looking eastward in hope, northward in darkness, westward in nostalgia, or southward in despair? The truth is that, every day, we look in different directions. God calls us to hope repeatedly and his call wins out in the end. But could we cooperate a bit more with that call? Some folks I know sure talk about how great the world used to be and how horrible it is now. They make it sound like everything good has already occurred and people they disagree with now have all the power and are trying to take everything they love away from them. That’s a pretty dark cynicism. And it disconnects us from reality.
The best is yet to come. That pretty well sums up the Christian Gospel message of hope. No matter how bad things seem to have gotten, God will bring about the fullness of grace in God’s good time. Things are working toward their completion. That doesn’t mean that things are naturally evolving and becoming better and better on their own. It means that God will not rest until all sin, evil, disease, death, and injustice is vanquished. God is bringing all things into the kingdom and God will cleanse us all for entrance into that kingdom.
As you approach the new day, are you posturing toward what is good and hopeful, toward what God may bring about today out of the potential of your life and that of all creation? Or are you still pouting about what has been taken away from you? Maybe the events of your life thrust your gaze in a different direction but you can adopt the posture of liturgical east. You can look for the good to come. Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you. Look for goodness and you will see it abundantly. The Holy Spirit has been given to make all things new. That includes you if you’re looking in the right direction.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.