Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry, recently published a video message to the church, where he elaborated on his theme of the Church being called to the Jesus Movement in the world (see the video here). When someone had asked him to paint a picture of what that Jesus Movement might look like, Bishop Curry described the moment in the Eucharist when the Gospel is read: the people are standing, singing, expecting something important to happen, and as the Deacon carries the Gospel book into the middle of the room, the peoplere-orient themselves, turning from wherever they are, to face the Deacon, putting the Gospel and the act of proclaiming the Gospel in the center of the congregation, turning to face the Word and Spirit through which Christ is present in the room, through which Christ is present everywhere: loving, liberating and life-giving.
I have experienced many Eucharists and many Gospel processions, and I am aware of the symbolism of proclaiming the Gospel from the midst of the people, but after Bishop Curry’s enthusiastic interpretation of this moment, I will never experience it in quite the same way again.
In many religions, believers place their bodies in relation to certain cardinal directions or certain holy sites while they pray: Muslims face Mecca to pray, whichever direction that may be. Through much of history, Christians have prayed facing east, facing the rising sun of the new world, the Kingdom of God, turning their backs on the setting sun of this waning world, looking for Christ’s promised return from the east.
Orientation is one of those funny words that the church took for a specific purpose, that secular language borrowed back, and that now the church is borrowing back again. To orient just means to face east, just as the noun orient refers to the Asian lands to the east of Europe. To orient oneself for prayer is to face east, and by extension to face Christ.
It has been traditional in many places to build churches with the altar at the east end; such churches are said to be oriented (if you are paying attention, St. John’s in Southwest Harbor is oriented, but St. Saviour and St. Andrew are not). This is not to say that an oriented church building is more “correct” than another, and in fact in some traditions the direction toward the altar is called “liturgical east” no matter which cardinal direction it faces, just as we may refer to the “Gospel side” and “Epistle side” of the church even if we read them both from the same place.
In academic context, we may talk about orientation as the week at the beginning of the fall semester when new first-year students are taught about rules and expectations, taught how to find the dining hall and the gym, taught what it means to be a student. They may need reminders, corrections, and discipline as they go along, but the intention is that orientation has pointed them in the right direction, toward that which is healthy and worthwhile.
Traditionally in the Examination at Baptism, we will ask the firsts three questions about renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil, with the candidate facing the back of the church, and at the fourth question, which begins “Do you turn to Jesus Christ…,” invite the candidate literally to turn to face the altar. This is a sacramental acting-out of orientation, or perhaps re-orientation, getting the candidate pointed in the right direction for the life of discipline that follows.
More broadly, we speak of orientation as a fundamental characteristic of who we are as people in relation to other people: sexual orientation, political orientation, other-orientation versus self-orientation. These describe us in terms of the things we value, the things we seek, the things we put at the center of our lives, the things toward which we turn.
We are glib enough to know that we don’t need a compass to pray, that God hears us no matter which direction we face, that we can hear the gospel with our back to the Deacon. But I hope that we are sacramental enough to recognize that what we face, what we place before our eyes, both bodily and spiritually, affects the value we place on those things and the way we live our lives. I hope that we are incarnated enough to realize the significance of putting the Gospel at the center of our congregation, both physically and faithfully. I pray that, as we continue to follow Christ and learn what it means to live as the Jesus movement day by day, we can keep singing as we turn and face that loving, liberating, life-giving One in our midst.