People Look East: The Beloved Advent Carol and the Tradition of Facing East in Liturgical Worship By Susan DeMarco

Of all of the hymns and carols that we sing during Advent, I’ve found that one of the most popular and well-loved is the Advent carol “People, Look East.”It’s no surprise either. It’s a tune that’s marked by joyful anticipation. Have you ever wondered, though, why the lyrics repeat the phrase “People, look EAST” so many times? What is so important about looking East and what does that have to do with preparing for Christmas? I always enjoyed singing the jubilant carol, but it wasn’t until I really learned about the history of the hymn and the call to look East” that I fell in love with it. Let’s start with some basic background on “People, Look East.” The melody was a traditional French tune called BESANCON that had been in existence well before the text we associate it with.The lyrics for “People, Look East” were written by Eleanor Farjeon, a children’s author from England who won multiple awards for her books, including the renowned Hans Christian Andersen Award and the Carnegie Medal.1 Her background as a children’s author explains the beautiful simplicity of the text and the quasi refrain at the end that both make “People, Look East” so accessible to people from varying backgrounds.

The next part I want to look at is the call to “look East.” In the Sacred Music Trivia that was published in the December 5th bulletin and sent out via Constant Contact, I mentioned that Advent music consists of our waiting for not only the birth of Christ but also his Second Coming. “People, Look East” is an example of an Advent carol that is about preparing for both Christ’s coming at Christmas and preparing for his Second Coming. The call throughout the hymn to “look East” is a call to look for the Second Coming since Christ will come from the East.

By punctuating the everyday preparations, the author is reminding us that we must continue our everyday tasks, but not forget the most important of them: Look East and remember that Christ is on his way. The tradition of facing East in worship, often referred to as ad orientem, goes back to the early Church. The early Christians faced their prayer towards the East since that was the direction of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8). Several of the Fathers of the Church, including Doctor of the Church St. John Damascene, stressed that we should face the East when adoring the Lord. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later known as Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, that “Praying toward the east….is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.”2

While many churches were built such that the priest and people would literally face geographical East during Mass, it hasn’t always been possible to build the churches in such a way that this is possible. Thus, we have the concept of “liturgical east” which is the concept that all are facing the same direction, namely in the direction of the Lord.

Moreover, Catholics are not the only ones that stress the importance of posture and direction in prayer. Faithful Jews face Jerusalem in prayer. Muslims face Mecca. Orthodox churches generally share the Catholic practice of facing East in their worship as do some Lutheran churches and Anglicans. Thus, there is a unified importance of facing the Lord, of a complete orientation towards God, both physically and spiritually. So, as we go forward in this Advent season, prepare your house and your family but through it all, “People, look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way!”

1 Hawn, C. Michael. 2013. “History of Hymns: People Look
East.” Accessed December 9, 2021. https://
www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-people-
look-east
2 Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San
Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 75