per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri in quibus visitavit nos oriens ex alto
In these words, (or their Greek equivalent) generations of Christians in both East and West were able to immediately perceive a connection between the faith they professed in the Son of God incarnate and the very physical posture of their worship. As they faced towards the east, it was not merely an arbitrary geographical detail nor a historical accident, but rather a deliberate stance that at once spoke volumes both theologically and viscerally.
As I was perusing a passage in Numbers 2:3 (in my Orthodox Study Bible- it has full color reprints of icons intermittently dispersed, and the thickness of the page makes them difficult to miss…) I came across an interesting footnote that held fast in my memory. The passage in particular says this:
Those camping first and on the east side shall be the division of Judah with their army; and the ruler of the children of Judah shall be Nahshon the son of Amminadab. (SAAS[1. Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint. Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.] )
The footnote then pointed out that the tribe of Judah, from which Jesus would come, was to camp on the east side. It then explained that ‘east’ is a synonym of orient, which is used of the Messiah in the book of Zechariah. I was a little taken aback, as I had never heard of the Messiah referred to as the Orient. I dutifully turned to the passage cited, and discovered that either the numbering of verses was different, or that there had simply been a typo, because I could not find such a statement anywhere. I then went to biblegateway.com and did a quick search of the term ‘orient’ in all of my standard go-to translations- NIV, NASB, etc. I then tried the KJV, thinking it would be there, but it wasn’t. Finally, unable to satiate my curiosity, I decided to read though Zechariah until I found it. Finally, I came across the reference: Zechariah 6:12. It is stated as such:
Thus says the Lord Almighty: “Behold the man, Orient is his name, and he shall rise up from below the horizon, and He shall build the house of the Lord.”
I was glad to have found it, but I was a little curious as to why it didn’t show up in any of the searches I had conducted earlier. I put Zechariah 6:12 into the biblegateway.com search bar, and found the following:
Tell him this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD. (NIV)
I tried it for all the other standard translations that I usually use, and found an nearly identical rendering. The only other one I could find that rendered it as ‘Orient’ was the Douay-Rheims version.
I was a bit perplexed as to why it was being rendered Branch in almost every other translation, and I started to suspect why. To confirm my suspicion, I looked up Zechariah 6:12 in the Vulgate and found the following:
et loqueris ad eum dicens haec ait Dominus exercituum dicens ecce vir Oriens nomen eius et subter eum orietur et aedificabit templum Domino
Sure enough, the Latin was rendering it in a similar manner (Oriens being the Latin for ‘Orient’), thus confimring my suspicion that this rendering was following the Septuagint as the Vulgate does (the Septuagint being the Greek translation of the Old Testament) rather than the Masoretic text (the Hebrew text as redacted in the first few centuries AD) rendering that most modern translations employ. (Branch being the rendering of the Hebrew in this instance.)
Being the curious type, I couldn’t leave it there, so I decided to dig into this some more. The Greek word being rendered as Orient in the Septuagint is anatole. Anatole carries the idea of ‘dawn’ or ‘dayspring;’ the concept of the rising of the sun is inherent in it. This demonstrates how the Septuagint rendering interprets the Hebrew use of ‘branch.’ If one approaches ‘branch’ in a metaphorical sense, as it is being used here, the idea behind it is that of growth and new life; as such, the rising sun evokes the idea of the source of new life, the anticipation that life is about to be brought in a new way that was hitherto unknown. This movement in concept led to an anticipation by some that someone named ‘Orient’ would be their Messiah. Or at least that it is how it was perceived by their pagan neighbors. The Roman historian Tactitus, writing near the end of the 1st century AD, reports that
…many were persuaded that in the ancient books of the priests were contained a “prophecy”, that at that time “Oriens”, or the east, should prevail;” that is, such an one should exist, or rule in the world, whose name is “Oriens”, or the rising sun.[2. Tacitus Hist. l. 5. c. 13]
Luke 1:78 gives us a rather clear example of how the early Christians might employ the renderings of the Septuagint in their interpretations of the Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The text says this: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us… (NRSV)
The Greek for ‘dawn’ used here at the closing of the Benedictus is anatole, the same terminology employed in Zechariah 6:12. The allusion is meant to be unmistakable, and, for the person familiar with the Septuagint rendering of Zechariah 6:12, it would have been. Zechariah’s prayer here also seems to follow the same idea that evidently led to the rendering of ‘Branch’ as ‘orient’- new life is about to break into the world. However, it is not simply the rising of the sun- it is coming down from ‘on high;’ something new is about to happen, and God is involved in this in an intimate way. We can see within some of the earliest Christian writings that the scriptures are given a new dimension in light of Christ.
This way of approaching the scriptures would have a powerful influence in the early church, as the Hebrew scriptures were given new life and new meaning because of Jesus. The idea of Jesus as the fulfillment of the ‘Orient’ from Zechariah 6:12 was strengthened by the Messianic declarations in Malachi 4:2 of the Messiah as the ‘sun of righteousness.’ This imagery was almost naturally applied to Christ who was, as the Gospel of John would say, the ‘true light.’ Jesus as ‘true light’ was solidified in meaning as 1 John would declare that ‘God is light;’ thus, the Messiah is not simply a man but is to be identified completely with God. This identification of Jesus as true light and as completely identified with God would eventually finds its way into the Creed, where the Son was declared to be Light from Light, true God from true God.
But God had become a man, as John’s gospel said. Thus, there was a now a very physical dimension to faith and worship that could not be ignored. The idea of Christ as the ‘dawn’ or the ‘orient’ began to find its way into Christian worship from the earliest days. The sun, as we all know, rises in the east; thus, ‘orient’ described not only the action of the sun rising, but the direction or place from which it rose. As such, orient came to signify ‘the east.’
In Christian worship the Resurrection retained an overriding influence- Christ was not dead, but alive. However, he was not merely a disembodied spirit, but had been physically raised from the dead. This foundational assertion carried with it many implications- as already described, there was now a physical dimension to worship. Jesus was the orient, and thus Christians began to allow their posture in prayer and worship to reflect this- as such, from the earliest days Christians worshipped and prayed towards the east, towards the ‘orient.’ In English we might say that they began to ‘orient’ themselves towards the east, towards Christ. This was not accidental; rather, it signified the deep unity of spirit and physicality that the early church recognized and was forced to continually clarify. St. John of Damascus says:
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.[3. St. John of Damascus EXPOSITION OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH 4.12]
St. John goes on to enumerate other scriptures that speak to the concept of the ‘east’ or the ‘orient,’ the pitching of Judah’s tents on the east of the camp being among them. We can thus perceive the early Christian way of seeing its worship and faith already alive within the Old Testament, for Christ is the promise and fulfillment of it. In the church, in the body of Christ, this new orientation is realized, both in the interiority of the spiritual union with God but also within the corporate union of worship. Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) says:
In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: Conversi ad Dominum, “Turn to the Lord!” In this way we look together at the One whose Death tore the veil of the Temple — the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in His arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.[4. Ratzinger, Feast of Faith]
This ‘to-ness’ was not simply a spiritual orientation, however, but was meant to engage one physically as well. To face the east was to face Christ, was a to-wardness in relation to Christ, in relation to God. Most early churches faced east-west so as to accommodate this kind of prayer. If it wasn’t possible, the cross could serve as an interior or liturgical east. Michael R. Carey, O.P. says:
This eastern orientation carries several different meanings. Most basically, the East represents Christ. So strong is the identification of Christ with the East that sometimes He is simply called by that name. This is a continuation of an Old Testament theme that says of God, “The Orient is his name” (Zec 6:12). In our liturgy, we also name Jesus the “Orient, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice.” So when we pray facing the East, we mean to face Christ himself.
The East also represents heaven in various ways. First, it is the place from which Christ will return. Facing the East therefore embodies a longing for Christ’s Second Coming and an expression of eschatological hope.[5. Michael R. Carey O.P., Facing East]
Thus, within the early church’s liturgical posture was embedded the hope that the church was waiting for Christ’s return- worship was not simply a present reality that dealt with the here-and-now but was also a looking forward, a looking toward, a trans-temporal orientation.
In English the concept of ‘orient’ has largely lost its eastern connotation. Yet implicit within the word is the movement and posture that its meaning requires- orienting requires action on the part of that which must be oriented. Not only is there action, but there is direction, there is a ‘to-ness.’ Orientation requires an object.
As re return to the beginning of this thought, we return to the words of the Benedictus: ‘the dawn from on high;’ in the words of the Vulgate: oriens ex alto. The faith of Christianity hinges upon the object of its orientation. For the early church, the very words used to describe Christ in the Septuagint and Gospels supplied the imagery that would fire its imagination and theology: Jesus was the sun of righteousness, Jesus was the Orient. Jesus was the one who, though Light from Light, was also human. The spiritual had touched and transformed the physical. The dawn from on high had come. In their posture of prayer towards the east, the early Christians encapsulated physically what was happening spiritually- their lives were being oriented around Christ. In the Troparion for the Feast of the Nativity, Christians would sing (and still do):
Thy nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom; for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee.[6. Troparion for the Feast of the Nativity]
After digging further into this, I have decided that I am going to emulate the early Christians and pray towards the east. I think that the very intentionality of my ad orientum posture will help to bring about an even greater intentionality and sincerity in regards to my spiritual posture. By doing so, I want to turn my entire being- body and soul, towards the Sun of Righteousness, towards the Orient.
So, as the holidays approach, and as so many things seek to have our affection, seek to have our orientation, may we re-orient ourselves around Christ, the Orient.
May our adoration of the one who is the Sun of Righteousness not merely be a matter of interiority, but of the posture of the entirety of our lives.
May we open up the darkness of our hearts to Christ so that he, as the dawn from on high, may rise upon us, and that the dayspring may dispel all the clouds of dark and night.
O Orient, Splendor of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice; come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death.