+ ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars’
Advent and the start of a new Christian year is a good time to ask ‘what are we? what is a human being?’ and ‘how do humans relate to God?’ And the sun will give us some help.
We are creatures of matter and spirit, body and soul. We relate to God through Sacrament and Word, things of the body and things of the soul and mind. God speaks to us in the same way, at the appointed time God entered his creation, the Son of God became a baby, a man and God spoke to us through the body of Jesus.
Real religion is thus not just a thing of the mind. God speaks to us through things, through signs and symbols. ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars’ There are signs all around us here in Church.
Now signs need to be read carefully and, as in life, we shouldn’t expect things to be too tidy. Our type of worship is full of signs and symbols and it is particularly suited for children – the number of times I’ve seen children copying what I do with my hands. Here we have ‘children’s chapel’ which travels the diocese helping children discover Christianity. But we shouldn’t expect things to be too tidy.
A couple of years ago I was explaining the symbols of Baptism to the children of Padstow and I got to the white robes we wear. They are symbols of the purity and goodness we are given in Baptism. One of the kids then said, ‘Fr Stephen, because you wear black all the time does that mean you are very evil?’
Symbols are powerful but they are not absolute, though they do point us towards God who is the Absolute Truth, Beauty and Goodness.
Our worship, its music, words and symbols, change according to the seasons of the Christian year. Most churches use Roman purple in Advent but here we use blue. It was used in medieval Britain & so is a colour that reminds us that our faith is native here. It is also the colour of the heavens where we look for Christ to return ‘in clouds descending’. It is also the colour of Mary and we look to what is in our East window – Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey. Advent is about waiting for Jesus. First Jesus returning at the end of time, as in our first hymn and today’s gospel. Then, as Advent progresses, we look more and more towards Christmas and Bethlehem. The Advent candles help us count off the Sundays. The lack of flowers remind us we are not there yet.
This year we have moved the altar to the back of the Sanctuary and for the Sundays of Advent. I will be praying facing East as was the general Christian custom until the 1960s. In general I face East when talking to God and West when talking to you.
Some will like this, some won’t, one thing I learned from the questionnaire is that there are a lot of different opinions strongly held at Holy Cross & that is good. It’d be boring if we were all the same. But worship is not about what we like. It is about giving glory to God and allowing ourselves to be transformed. If we live at the level of our prejudices, we close ourselves off from God’s transformative love. So, why is facing East important?
First some history. In AD 350 St Basil noted that Christianity was received in the Bible and in unwritten traditions, and one of the most ancient of these was the custom of facing East in prayer. 270 years later when Muhammad was establishing Islam he copied a lot from local Christians, including the custom of praying towards the East, which soon changed to facing Mecca.
Why do Christians face East to pray? Even this Church, like most others, was ‘orientated’, built facing East, facing the rising sun, so it is very important. In Matthew’s version of today’s gospel Jesus says that, ‘As the lightning comes from the East . . so shall the Son of Man appear’. When Jesus comes in glory he will come from the East. This theme is so strong in the Bible that Jesus, the Messiah is sometimes simply called ‘the East’: Zechariah says ‘The East is his name’. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel we read about Jesus: ‘In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in the darkness and the shadow of death’. Jesus is ‘the dawn’ and in Greek and Latin the word is simply ‘the East’ – ‘oriens’ or ‘anatole’. Jesus is the East, and the rising sun symbolises Jesus. ‘There will be signs in the sun’.
So, facing East for prayer come from the heart of Christianity and is particularly appropriate for Advent, when we wait for the coming of Christ in the East, whether in the clouds of dawn on the day of judgement or in the stable in our East window.
One objection to the priest facing East is that he is turning his back to the people. Actually he is turning to talk to God, as the words he says make clear, and it shows the priest is part of the community as all face the same way. The other way when the priest faces us over the altar can remind us that we are gathered round the table of the Lord, but it can symbolise a community turned in on itself. Facing East is looking outwards. I’m also told that when it was introduced here, some people said the priest’s face was not pretty enough to look at.
Each way of doing things has advantages and disadvantages in its symbolism – I have not moved the altar table to its old place on the east wall so we can keep the advantage of this building that we all feel close to the centre of action. For Advent, though, all of us facing East together and waiting for Jesus is appropriate and at Christmas we can change back and gather round the manger. God wants us to relate to him through signs and symbols so let’s do just that.