Prior to 2019 the week before university commenced for the year was called Orientation Week (shortened to O Week). It was in this week that students would walk around campus, find their lecture rooms and start to change the course of their lives.
Orientation, however, is a word that cannot be understood correctly except in a Christian context. The literal meaning of the word is to turn to the East, stemming from the Latin word oriens. But why is turning to the East uniquely Christian? It is all to do with the fact that we pray facing towards the East. Most Orthodox church buildings are designed so that the people face to the East when praying and it is a practice among many faithful to have their icon corners set up so that they can pray facing the East.
Historically, this practice stems from the Apostolic tradition and looks to the Second Coming of Christ. St John of Damascus writes that “in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith IV.12). This tradition is also founded in our understanding of God as a spiritual light, and of Christ who is called the Sun of Righteousness and the Dayspring.
Further, there are many occasions in the Old Testament where the East is regarded as holy, with the Gate of the Lord in the Temple of Solomon facing to the East and Eden – a symbol of heaven – placed in the East. This is why we pray facing the East and look to the coming of Christ, and not to a physical place like Muslims who pray toward Mecca. The Divine Liturgy itself is an act of cosmic reorientation, turning us towards Christ.
How did this idea of orientation become applied to universities? The word took on its new meaning in the context of people examining their surroundings, maps or compasses to find the way to their destination in much the same way as Christians turn to the East to find Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Orientation entered the university through the experiences of students trying to find a point of reference by which they can start to find their way. Ours is the symbolic East, towards Christ and Paradise.
What about that other meaning of orientation in modern society? The one used in connection with politics and, more recently, choice of sexual partner. This author would hypothesise that these are founded on the religious meaning, with Christ substituted for a political ideology or choice of erotic pleasure as a point of reference by which people today guide their lives.
By changing Orientation Week into “Welcome Week” the symbolism of turning toward Christ and using Him as a point of reference has been taken away. Yet again, modern society is stripped of another layer of its Christian tradition.