Looking East

Through accidents of First Worldness, I have come to spend much of my life in […]

Through accidents of First Worldness, I have come to spend much of my life in airports and on airplanes. I live in a city so small that its airport has flights to only one city—Philadelphia—and where there is active opposition to the idea of lengthening the runway so that we might be able to travel to some place as grand as Pittsburgh. This means that nearly every trip I take involves two or more segments, two takings-off and two bumpy landings. I have developed a funny habit of telling loved ones when the wheels are up, and a thankfulness that wells up when they tell me they are praying for a safe down. I nearly always sit in 23C, and about half the time there is someone already sitting in my seat when I get on the plane. I regale my friends with stories of sitting with Kellyanne Conway and Martha Stewart in coach, and I enjoy the consistency of things: the seat pockets, the uniforms, the bad snacks, the lousy lounge food, the cramped time with too many books on my lap next to a coffee. One of my dearest classmates from divinity school is now a flight attendant, and I cross my fingers for the chance to see her: a sister who puts everyone around her at ease. There is still romance in the sky for me, and although I am surrounded by a sea of athleisure, I never travel without putting on a suit and tie.

I have come to reflect on a class of people who may be the last bastions of implicit and complete public trust: the pilots. Clergy long ago lost the trust of their congregations, through their own misdeeds. Doctors retain it to some extent, but they hedge their bets with malpractice insurance, and none of us goes under the knife without a whispered prayer should something go wrong. Police themselves need the policing of dash-cams. The corrupt politician is an earned cliché because we have built political systems in which the clean cannot be elected.

But pilots sit somehow above this erosion of trust, and the terrifying handful of situations in which they have failed to honor it are singular because of just how far they depart from the golden standard: Germanwings 9525, EgyptAir 990, Malaysia Airlines 370. Millions of people each day travel safely and seamlessly in the good care of men and women in cockpits, along with the ground staff and attendants who also do their duty in the trivial round and common task. There is a sense in which the little room of windows at the front of the plane has become a modern holy of holies—now inviolate and inaccessible, though in recent memory it was a normal treat for young passengers to be allowed up front to pose for pictures even at cruising altitude. None but the safest, most highly-trained, most sober and rested, with the best eyesight may now enter this space and take the lives of hundreds into their hands and reflexes. They smile and thank us when we get off the plane, but I think most of us still have a sense that we have participated in a miracle every time we land, and that we are the ones who should be thanking them. What we do not see is that they have worked through checklists with Levitical precision at every step of the way.

For the worshipping Christian, there is a theological angle to be considered. The pilot and the passengers are all facing in the same direction at the same time: forward. The pilot and the passengers are all in the same danger, and all secure in the same safety. This was the same posture the ancient Church gave to her children in the Holy Communion: facing in one direction to plead the one sacrifice of the Cross for our sins, facing in one direction to meet our Lord at his rising. It needs saying that something has been lost in the modern reorientation of many churches to have the celebrant and congregation facing one another in dialogue, rather than in the old “eastward” celebration which has always been called “liturgical east” even when this was not the strict cardinal direction of a sanctuary. When we face the same direction together in prayer, there is a radical equality and leveling. The priest and people are united in their focus, rather than trading words over a table. The celebrant is as anonymous as the pilot, identical in simple humility before God with the people gathered in their many sorts and conditions. If there are faces to be seen, they are our own in the reflected light of the cup or the paten: the seeing of ourselves as we really are in Baptism.

It is not exactly wrong to worship facing one another, rather than facing in one direction together, but it is different. The airplane metaphor should not be strained beyond reason, as good as it is. As the practice has become rarer in the last 60 years, eastward celebration becomes even dearer to those who keep it, a secret and understood thing that offers a relief from the interactions we have with screens and dashboards. The facing forward together links us backward to the examples of Lot and his daughters, who obeyed God by not looking back when he rescued them from wickedness. Facing forward together teaches us to be like Moses in his desire to see God’s glory. Facing forward together gives us the anonymity we so desire as the children of a loving Father who knows each of the hairs of our heads, who cares for the sparrow, who prepares a dwelling place at his altars for the swallow and her young.

It is, perhaps with some irony, a very modern hymn that unpacks the goodness of looking east in worship. Nellie Farjeon—known best through Cat Stevens’s popular recordings of her hymn “Morning Has Broken”—died only in 1965, and gives us a very bright text indeed as a reflection about how we arrange our souls in this season and in all seasons.

People, look east, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With this word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

With the furrows and birds, the stars and angels, we take our ordered place in creation to meet the infant Christ: Love the guest, Love the rose, Love the star, Love the Lord. He is the author and finisher of our faith, the shepherd and bishop of our souls, the little babe so few days old who comes to rifle Satan’s fold. O come, let us adore him.


3 responses to “Looking East”

  1. As a Catholic, I celebrate Mass versus populum 99% of the time, but innate good sense and desirability of ad orientem celebration has never left me. I’d like to institute in my parish. Now your essay forces me to re-examine why I don’t.

  2. Duo says:

    This is Great

  3. Sam says:

    Richard, I look forward to every entry of yours on Mockingbird. There is a tenderness and thoughtful care in the way the power of the gospel is delivered that brings me to tears. Thanks so much and God continue to bless you and protect you in your travels and always.

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