Reflecting Heaven Part 9: The Center Aisle

06-23-2021Reflecting HeavenFr. Don Kline, V.F.

This week we turn our attention from the beautiful stained glass windows to the walls and the floor. Back in part 3 of this series, we learned that the nave is the main body of the church apart from the sanctuary. It is the area where the people, the liturgical assembly, sit, kneel, stand, process, listen, sing, and pray at Mass, and where they may come pray in adoration and devotion outside Mass. The word “nave” stems from the same Latin root as “navy” and “navigation,” and it recalls the ancient symbol of the “Ship of the Church” or “Barque of St. Peter,” the vessel that keeps us safe from the waters of chaos as we make our pilgrim way toward heaven.

The USCCB document that guides church architects and artists, Built of Living Stones [BLS], reinforces this point:

“As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim church on earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in which are actualized the mystery of the communion between man and God.” (BLS §50)

In other words, the church building and the nave are places of both solidity and dynamic movement! As a pilgrim church, we are solid in our faith, but constantly moving toward our goal, our heavenly homeland and communion with the Most Blessed Trinity. Keep in mind that double image of stability and motion as we explore the aisles throughout the church.

The journey begins, really, at the Baptismal font, which, is on the axis of the center aisle and altar. Our pilgrimage journey to heaven begins in the waters of Baptism, when we die to our old self and original sin and are claimed as children of the Almighty God. Our font is built from marble, and it echoes the white marble of our Altar, Ambo, and Altars in the transepts beneath Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. Thus, its connection to Eucharist is unmistakable.

All that will remain unchanged in the renovation. What will be different is sanctuary, ceiling and the walls on either side of the main aisle. After the renovation, these walls will be clad with flowering vines which are a representation of the garden of heaven, perfection, and paradise. The simple scroll border is a classic Romanesque border in keeping with the architecture of St. Bernadette. Wheat and grapes are incorporated into the frame around the crucifix and tabernacle.

The pattern behind the Crucifix and tabernacle features stylized crosses within shapes that are formed with interwoven, unending (eternal) lattice. The shapes themselves are a cross and an 8 pointed star. The eight-pointed star is the Star of Redemption or Regeneration and represents Baptism. Eight days after His birth, as was the Jewish custom, Jesus was circumcised; baptism is seen as the New Testament equivalent of circumcision.

Moving on to the ceiling you will see the blue of the heavenly celestial panels which resembles lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue rock that, in the medieval era, was used to color illuminated biblical manuscripts. The medallion on either side of the central mural maintains the general theme of flowers in the Heavenly Garden and also having the characteristics of a crown.

The border around the ceiling panels suggests gems within an intertwining rope that symbolizes infinity.

The window reveals and hoods will be decorated with a complimentary gold tone woven wicker and metallic gold scrolls framing a gold cross. Church documents call for liturgical spaces to be built of “noble” materials and urge “noble simplicity” in décor, action, and music. Marble provides a noble contrast to the tile that covers the rest of the nave and narthex, highlighting the center aisle and sanctuary according to their pilgrimage purpose.

Our pilgrimage to heaven takes us from Baptism up the center aisle toward the Sanctuary. On this journey, we will encounter a series of beautiful marble renderings in the aisles of the sacraments that symbolize our pilgrimage. These powerful marble images which are located around the church, begin with the first of the three Sacraments of Initiation, Baptism. As you processes down th middle aisle to the break, you will see the marble medallion for the Sacrament of Reconciliation with large keys. This powerful symbol reminds us of the authority of all the successors of Saint Peter. And we know that his authority is not something that he invented on his own. His authority comes from Jesus Christ Himself, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the Founder of the Catholic Church two thousand plus years ago.

We hear in the Gospel: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” And then Jesus gave Peter the authority to rule over His Church: “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven. Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.”

There’s the authority Jesus gave to Peter! Whatever Peter and his successors bind on earth, then it shall be bound in Heaven! Whatever Peter and his successors loose on earth, then it shall be loosed in Heaven! This is what we call the “Power of the Keys”.

Just prior to steps leading into the sanctuary, we come to the marble emblem for Confirmation and the image of the Holy Spirit. This is the area where those to be confirmed gather at the Easter Vigil. It is also where a wedding couple stand as they approach the Altar in the Sacrament of Matrimony, and where the casket is placed at funerals. And each and every day, it is where we approach the sanctuary for Holy Communion.

Our pilgrimage journey to heaven could never be accomplished without the fire and power of the Holy Spirit, who is the subject of the emblem on the floor and prominently seen above the altar. Both images combines the symbols of dove and fire to represent the beauty and power of the Holy Spirit.

Our pilgrimage journey to union with Christ in heaven is not quite complete. As the priest, deacon and servers enter the Sanctuary itself, the symbol of heaven-on-earth, we will climb the steps to the altar. When we climb steps, there is an ascension which brings a sense that heaven is “up” rather than “down”. Steps reminds us that we approach God is by becoming better morally and growing in our spiritual journey up to heaven. In our minds we make a connection, unintelligible but real, between rising up and the spiritual approach to God; and Him we call the All-Highest.

Likewise, think of the steps that lead from the parking lot into the church. Climbing up the steps can remind us that in going up into the house of prayer thereby coming nearer to God; the steps from the nave to the sanctuary brings us before the All-Holy. The steps between the sanctuary and the altar say to whoever ascends them the same words that God spoke to Moses on Mount Horeb: “Put your shoes from off your feet, for the place whereon you stand is holy ground.”