Reflecting Heaven Part 3: The Narthex & Nave

05-16-2021Reflecting HeavenFr. Don Kline, V.F.

Last week we looked at the idea of the church building being a reflection of Heaven on earth. That “form within a Form” begins on the outside, with the roof peak reaching to heaven, bells ringing out joy (and sometimes tolling sorrow) in the community, and all topped off by the ultimate Christian symbol of Christ’s victory, the cross. But the image of Heaven on earth reaches its fullest expression on the inside, where the Church (the living people of God, the “living stones” of St. Peter’s letter) gathers in the church building.

The church building itself includes diverse areas, used for diverse purposes. Each space has both a functional and a symbolic purpose in the Christian life. Let’s take a walk through St. Bernadette to explore.

We start, of course, by going through the door. Simple enough, but rich in meaning. The USCCB document Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (BLS) remind us that the church doors “function as the secure, steady symbol of Christ, ‘the Good Shepherd,’” (BLS §97). Particularly for some who have fallen away
from the Catholic Church or for non-Catholics, passing over that threshold can be a very, very big deal indeed.

Lest we get stuck at the door, let’s move on to the narthex, “a place of welcome” (BLS §95). The Church describes this gathering space as a transition from the outside world to the mystical realities of the Mass, and then again it provides the passage back to the outside world to witness after having received the Sacraments. It is a place of welcome and gathering, where so often Christ’s Kingdom is built up through fellowship.

We walk through the narthex and pass the Baptismal font. It is significant that the Baptismal font is situated near the main doors into the nave. Ideally, each and every one of us would dip our hand into our Baptismal font before entering the nave, to remind us of our death to self and new life in Christ at our own Baptism.

In practical terms, we may use smaller fonts of baptismal water, located near each door, but the symbolism should never be forgotten: our entrance into the Mysteries of the Mass are by virtue of our Baptism. Near the Baptismal font is the Paschal Candle or “Christ Candle,” which is used to light the baptismal candle of every new initiate in the faith, and also to burn at each one’s funeral.

Near the font is the ambry, a case in which the sacred oils used in the Sacraments are housed. This connection among Baptism, Eucharist, and the Sacramental oils is strong.

At St. Bernadette, another way this is shown is in the materials that make up the font, ambo and ambry pedestal – made of marble.

The decorative marble also makes up the sides of our baptismal font. That same marble was used as the core material of our altar of sacrifice, ambo, and tabernacle base.

The upcoming renovation stays true to this spirit of re-purposing the noble materials depicting our Catholic history. And when you see the shining white marble at the font, the stained glass windows, the Paschal candle, the oils, altar, ambo, and tabernacle, the connection among the Sacraments shines forth.

Another way this connection among the Sacraments is shown in very tiling in the aisles of the church. The seven Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick are all depicted with rich symbols throughout flooring of the church interior.

The center aisle leads God’s people down the nave to the Holy of Holies - the Sanctuary. Our procession up the aisle brings us literally to the “Holy of holies” and “Heaven on earth” where we receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. This procession is meant to remind us of our journey to heaven and our real encounter with Our Lord. This journey is a wonderful reminder of our pilgrimage through life which is oriented to our final destination which is heaven.

On our way up the center aisle to the Sanctuary, we pass through the “nave” of the church. This word “nave” is underused and little understood. The nave is the area in which the Assembly, the lay people, worship. The Latin root of “nave” is the Latin “navis,” or “ship.” The image of the Church as a safe ship (the “Barque of Peter”) in which we navigate the waters of chaos is an ancient one. Some may tend to the right side of the boat or to the left but as long as we remain truly faithful to Christ our Captain and the Holy Spirit, the wind in our sail, we’re on our way to our destination.

BLS has this to say about the nave:

“[The nave] is critical in the overall plan because it accommodates a variety of ritual actions: processions during the Eucharist, the singing of the prayers, movement during baptismal rites, the sprinkling of the congregation with blessed water, the rites during the wedding and funeral liturgies, and personal devotion. This area is not comparable to the audience’s space in a theater or public arena because in the liturgical assembly, there is no audience. Rather, the entire congregation acts.” (BLS §51)

Look again at those last two sentences. In Catholic liturgy, there is no audience – no spectators. We are all called to take part “fully, actively, and consciously.” That’s what we do in the nave and our renovation invites everyone to be a part of the heavenly liturgy.