Due to neighboring structures in the vicinity or other geographical constraints, it has occasionally been hard to build a church with the altar facing East for a variety of reasons. Since Vatican II in the 1960s, most Roman Catholic churches have been constructed in the round, bringing the Mass closer to the people. Also, because of the increasing number of North American Catholics who are Eastern Orthodox or Protestant, some churches are now being built with an all-purpose room and not specifically as a church.
But even before Vatican II, many Catholic churches were not built with their altars facing east because of practical considerations or the influence of local bishops. For example, the altar of a Spanish church would usually be facing west because that is where the sun rises. However, this was not always the case: early churches were often built without any orientation rules since there was no need for marking which direction was north or south.
Nowadays, the majority of Catholic churches do have their main altar facing east because it is the traditional location of Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection both on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. However, many older churches may have had their altars facing west because that is what was done in ancient Rome. The current pope always celebrates Mass facing east so it is best to check the directions of the altar and priest when visiting a church for the first time.
Eastern Orthodox churches also face east during worship services but they are generally not dedicated exclusively to Christ.
Regardless of its shape, the altar (sanctuary) is located in the eastern portion of the church. A bell tower is attached to (or built independently from) the church's western side. As a result, most Orthodox churches are rectangular in shape. The Greek word for "church" is ekklesia, which is derived from the Jewish temple. Thus, most Orthodox churches have a rectangular layout similar to that of the temple.
The reason for this design choice is found in the New Testament. In Acts 20:28, the Holy Spirit tells the disciples that He has made them fishers of men. According to Dr. Charles Ellicott, "Fishermen worked from a boat; and so did these Christians. They went forth into the deep waters and preached Christ to the lost."
In addition to their belief in the Holy Spirit as a divine guide, it also should be noted that early Christians were Jewish believers who had not abandoned the practices and rituals of their former religion. For these reasons, they would have used the facilities of the nearby Jewish temple.
Later generations of Orthodox Christians have maintained this style of architecture because it conforms to the New Testament command to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.
Today, many Eastern Orthodox churches still have a rectangular floor plan with an altar in the east.
The Altar This is the most visible aspect of a Roman Catholic Church. The altar is located in the center of the east wall, at the top of the cross-shaped edifice, in classic cruciform churches. It consists of a table made of wood or stone, on which are placed vessels containing food for consumption by those who pray. In addition, the altar may have objects used for ritual purposes, such as candles or statues of saints.
In Latin churches, the altar is called altare di san Pietro (or di Santa Maria), meaning "altar of St Peter (or Mary)". In French churches, it is known as the "autel de saint Pierre" or "autel de la Marie en France", while in German churches, it is called the "Altarschädel" or "Altarstein".
In Eastern Orthodox churches, the altar is called the prothesis ("proto-" means first). This refers to the fact that this is the central part of the Christian service where bread and wine are presented as gifts to God. From here, they are distributed among the people during the Eucharist.
In Anglican churches, the altar is called the altar rails.
The east wall was initially chosen because it is the most sacred aspect of the church. This is because the sun rises toward the east, which was thought to be a metaphor of the resurrection. Thus, the altar is the central point around which the congregation gathers daily to celebrate the resurrection with prayers and readings from the Bible.
The altar is the heart of any church: it is here that we come together to remember those who have gone before us, to seek forgiveness for our sins, and to call upon God's blessing upon all they love. An important part of this ritual is the offering of gifts to God. These could be material (such as flowers or candles) or spiritual (such as prayer for others or faith in Jesus Christ). Gifts are placed on the altar in memory of those who have died or in gratitude for blessings received. By presenting their gifts on the altar, worshipers show their respect for the dead and acknowledge that they too are children of God who deserve his mercy.
After the gifts have been offered, the priest or minister reads from the Bible, gives absolution for sin, and makes an invocation asking God to bless everyone within the church building and its surrounding community.
This service ends with everybody singing "Alleluia" ("God is Love"), after which the congregation leaves the altar area through the west entrance.
The orientation of Christian churches reflects the historically recorded idea of turning eastward to pray, as well as the architectural and liturgical premise that temples and churches should be built facing east (often specified as equinoctial east). The practice of facing churches west came about because that was the custom in Europe when many churches were constructed under the influence of Islam. Although this may not be true of all mosques, it is certainly true for most medieval ones.
There are two main arguments for facing churches east: one based on theology and the other on architecture. The first argument comes from the book of Revelation where we are told to look for Jesus' return at dawning on the east. Because dawn comes from the east, Christians believe that God is sovereign over time and space, and so he could have Jesus return at any moment. Since churches should be ready to receive worshipers at a moment's notice, they should face east to catch people's attention as they arrive by foot or car.
The second argument focuses on architecture and the influence of the sun on human life. Buildings reflect the light of the sun, so if a church is built with its front facing north or south, it will need to be repainted every few years to avoid having dark corners where sin can grow unchecked. Churches built with their fronts facing east are surrounded by light throughout the day and do not require repainting.
The east wall The altar is located in the center of the east wall, at the top of the cross-shaped edifice, in classic cruciform churches. Thus, the east wall was always reserved for the holiest objects of the church: the altar and the bishop's throne.
In medieval churches, the altar usually stands alone in the middle of the nave. But it can also be found in the south transept or north porch. Today, the altar usually sits within a wooden structure called a retable. This is because gold and silver vessels were used as gifts before the establishment of the Holy Treasury. So the altar could not be exposed on the floor like today, where it would be in danger of being damaged.
The retable is built by artisans who work with wood and metal materials. It can include images of Jesus, Mary, and other saints. Sometimes it has a tree motif. There are also retables that display texts from the Bible.
Since the 16th century, the altar has been placed at the front of the nave, next to the west wall. This is how it remains today in Protestant churches. In Catholic churches, after Mass, the priest walks to the east side of the nave to bless the people from the altar.