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Evan Roberts Quote : Christian Books : Symbolism of the Church Building

The Worship Of The Church by Jacob A. Regester

Symbolism of the Church Building

|As soon as the early Christians were at liberty to build churches according to their own mind, they took pains to make them significant of their religion. Probably at first the Christians took for the purposes of their worship such buildings as they could get, adapting them to their uses as best they might. But when they grew strong enough and independent enough to build as the heart and imagination dictated, then they showed themselves careful to make their houses of God in shape and dimension suggestive of what they believed.| These old builders were Churchmen, and made their Churchmanship and their belief felt in their work. A deep and true symbolism was carried out in the plan and construction of their {18} churches. Thus Christian churches at an early day came to be built in the form of a cross. This was not only the most ornamental form of structure; it was much more: it made the very fabric of the church the symbol of our faith in Christ crucified. Some chancels of old churches were even built with a slight deflection from the line of direction of the nave, thus representing the inclination of our Saviour's head upon the Cross. It made also the gathering together of each congregation of His Church -- which is His mystical Body -- the symbol of that body itself: that part in the nave representing His body, that in the transepts His outstretched arms, that in the choir His head. And so, also, |the united prayers and praises of the congregation make, as it were, in their very sound the sign of the Cross.|

This plan of constructive symbolism affects not only the fabric of the church as a whole, but each separate part of the church has its religious character and meaning.

Let us linger for a moment on the outside. The spire points upward and teaches its lesson of aspiration. |Lift up your hearts,| it seems to say, and holds up the Cross as that by which alone we are to be |exalted unto everlasting life.| Whenever we {19} lift up our eyes to it, it ought to repeat for us that lesson -- rebuke downward thoughts and desires, and point up to spiritual and heavenly things.

In the tower are the bells, and what the spire with its uplifted Cross says to us in silent eloquence these say in sound and music.

The office of the bell in calling to prayer and holy worship was regarded in olden time with much reverence. The use of bells for the purpose of gathering people together in large numbers appears to be of Christian origin. |Large bells hung in a tower seem to have been unknown before A.D.500. They were first made in Campania in Italy, whence the Italian name campana, a bell, and campanile, a bell-tower. Bells were anciently supposed to have considerable powers, especially against evil spirits. Their use for religious purposes probably originated this belief. The hand-bells of the British apostles, St. Patrick, St. Columba, St. David, etc., are said to have been long preserved, if not existing even now. They are four-sided bronze bells, sometimes of several plates fused into one. St. Patrick is said by an old legend to have dispersed a host of demons, who were too bold to be scared by the mere ringing of the bell, by flinging it into the midst of them.

|Bells in the middle ages were sometimes {20} dedicated to saints. They were christened with all the usual ceremonies and with much pomp; sponsors were provided, the bell was sprinkled at the font, anointed with oil, and robed in a chrisom. Superstitious as these customs would seem now, there is something fine in the simple faith which thus, in those more poetic days, consecrated to God's service the voices which should proclaim Him far and wide over the land.| In simpler form, the custom is still frequently observed of setting apart by solemn prayer and benediction the bells which are to call men to prayer or to ring out the praises of God.

Church bells are frequently marked by appropriate inscriptions. The following, for instance, was very common in the middle ages, all these powers being attributed to bells:

|Funera plango, Fulgura trango, Sabbata pango,
Excito lentos, Dissipo ventos, Paco cruentos.|

|I mourn the dead, I break the lightning, I announce the Sabbath, I excite the slothful, I disperse the winds, I appease the cruel.|

As instances of modern inscriptions we have the following: |Bethlehem, Calvary, Bethany.| |We welcome the infant to the Font. We invite the {21} youth to Confirmation. We invoke the faithful to the Holy Communion.| |Joyful our peal for the bridal; mournful our plaint for the dead.|

Let us turn now to the inside of the church and inquire as to the spiritual significance which has become associated with its several parts.

The church is divided into two main portions -- the body of the church and the chancel. This represents the whole Catholic Church, divided into those on earth and those who have passed into Paradise. The body of the church, representing those on earth, is divided again into two parts -- the nave and transepts. And these have each their special religious associations and suggestiveness.

The Nave. -- The nave is that part which extends from the door to the choir. It is the place where the congregation is gathered, in the fellowship of Christ's religion, for the purpose of worship. It is most probably called the nave from the Latin navis, signifying a ship, the same word from which we get our English |navy| and |naval.| The ship was the favorite symbol of the Church in primitive times. We have the idea preserved for us in the first prayer in the Offices for Holy Baptism: |Received into the ark of Christ's Church ... may so pass the waves of this troublesome world| as {22} finally to |come to the land of everlasting life.| The thought was so much in mind that some old churches were built with the timbers of the roof modeled like the ribs of a ship, and in some cases the walls were made irregular to represent the sides of the ship beaten and pressed upon by the waves. The nave, then, as representing the Church into which God in His love gathers us together in order to bring us in safety through the storms of life to the |land of everlasting life,| stands for the idea of fellowship in Christ.

We may come to that same idea in connection with the main body of the church in other ways. Notice how it is made up of several parts, divided, in many churches, by pillars and arches. There is the central part, what is called, strictly speaking, the nave, and the two side parts, called the aisles. Now this threefold division of the main body of the church into nave and aisles may speak to us of the same thing -- fellowship. These divisions do not make up three separate churches, but unite in the one church.

So, again, the idea of fellowship may come to us in another way. The special service of the nave is the Litany. This solemn service has been said from very early times from the Litany-desk, placed {23} at the head of the nave, before the entrance to the chancel. |Its position there refers to a Litany, and a place for it to be said, of God's own appointing. 'Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare Thy people, O Lord.' Our Litany, retaining the same words of supplication, is said, in allusion to this, in the midst of the church,| the priest taking his place with the people, and, in fellowship of sinfulness and need, leading their supplications.

This truth of fellowship in Christ which the nave suggests, we confess our belief in when we say, |I believe in the holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints.| The pictures of the saints of the Old and the New Testament, of the angels who worship Christ our Saviour, and of the men blessed by Him when on earth, which shine for us in the windows, may help to give it reality in our thought. The four main walls of the church, which are supposed to represent the four Evangelists, and the pillars, |which, as the chief supports of the fabric, are said to represent the Apostles, prophets, and martyrs,| may remind us also of the holy and glorious fellowship into which we have been brought.

This fellowship in Christ is one of the means which God's love uses for helping and saving men. {24} We are helped by it. We must by it help others. Let us build, it, then, into the daily life, as it is built into the very stones of the church.

The Transepts. -- The transepts are the part of the church which gives to the building the cruciform shape. Crossing the nave before the entrance to the chancel, running the one to the north, the other to the south, they complete the outline of the cross. Upon the arms of such a cross our Saviour hung as He died for us.

The transepts may bring us, then, as we remember this, the thought of sacrifice, that our lives to be truly Christian must have the spirit of the Cross worked into them. It was by offering Himself in sacrifice that Christ redeemed us, and it is by offering ourselves to Him in sacrifice, by self-denial for His cause, and by doing good (at some cost to ourselves) to others for His sake, that we make the response He asks to His love. That offering of ourselves must be made not only by our lips in the act of worship, but also by our lives, in deeds.

So, also, the spirit of Christ is the spirit of service, through love, in behalf of others -- the spirit of true fellowship. Now we cannot realize that spirit without sacrifice of selfish inclination and desire. We saw that the main body of the church {25} represents that portion of Christ's Church which is on earth, and that the nave suggests the idea of fellowship as the very spirit and law of the Christian life. Now the transepts, making the cross, tell us that fellowship expresses itself truly, that is, after Christ's example, through sacrifice. |A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.| The true Christian life of loving fellowship, after the example of our Saviour who died upon the Cross for us, must get somehow, in self-denial for Christ and self-forgetful work for others, the sign of the Cross worked into it.

The Chancel. -- The body of the church, as we have seen, is regarded as representing the |Church militant,| that part of the Church which is here on earth and still in conflict. The chancel represents that part of the Church which is made up of those who have passed through death to the state beyond.

The word |chancel| is derived from the Latin word for the lattice-work which formerly parted this portion of the church from the nave. It is the same word from which we get our word |to cancel,| that is, to destroy a writing by crossing it out with the pen, which makes something like the figure of a lattice. The lattice was part of the screen {26} (sometimes called the |rood-screen,| from the rood or crucifix upon it) which in some churches stood in the arch and divided the chancel from the nave. The screen signified death. Men passed through it from the nave into the chancel, as they must pass through death from the part of the Church which is on earth to the part which is in the world of spirits.

In the chancel itself we have two parts -- the choir and the sanctuary.

The Choir. -- As its name denotes, the choir is that part appropriated to those who lead the worship. It is cut off by the screen, or chancel arch, from the nave, and is elevated above it by several steps. In the symbolism of the church building it represents that part of the holy Catholic Church which is known as the |Church expectant| -- those who have passed through death into the rest and waiting of Paradise.

Let us see what the Prayer-Book says of those who are in Paradise. In the Burial Office we have this prayer: |Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of those who depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity; We give Thee hearty thanks for {27} the good examples of all those Thy servants, who, having finished their course in faith, do now rest from their labors. And we beseech Thee, that we, with all those who are departed in the true faith of Thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in Thy eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.|

Note how the closing portion reminds us that while the departed |do now rest from their labors,| they have not yet received their |perfect consummation and bliss|; that they wait for this till the coming of our Lord and the Resurrection, when it shall be |both in body and soul,| |in eternal and everlasting glory.| We speak of them, therefore, as composing the |Church expectant.|

Now observe what the same prayer tells us of their state while thus resting and waiting in expectation of their perfect consummation and bliss. It says, |The souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity.|

This same symbolic meaning for this part of the chancel may come to us in another way, that is, from the services which are conducted from it, Morning and Evening Prayer, which are commonly {28} known, therefore, as the |Choir Offices.| These look beyond the choir, which represents the |Church expectant| in Paradise, to the sanctuary, with its Altar, which represents, as we shall see, heaven and the |Church triumphant.| The central point of the Church's worship is the great sacrificial act of the oblation of the Holy Eucharist. Upon this the other services of Morning Prayer and the Litany, which precede, and of Evening Prayer, which follows, depend for their significance; the first as preparation for it, and the second as an act of thanksgiving and praise; just as the |felicity| of those in Paradise is a felicity not perfect in itself, but one of anticipation of, and preparation and thankfulness for, the |perfect consummation and bliss| which await them.

And the dominant note of these services is keyed to that same idea. It is a note of |joy.| There are indeed strongly marked features of penitence and need. We come before God in our worship as those who are sinful and needy. We ever make approach through the sacrifice of the Cross. But we come also as those who have confidence in divine love and mercy. So praise, joyous praise, predominates. The Te Deum, the Benedicite, the Benedictus, the Jubilate, all ring out this note and give {29} joyousness to the service, while Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis tell of rejoicing and hope in what Christ has brought us by His Incarnation.

It is all a worship of preparation and joy. The choir may remind us, then, by its suggestiveness as related to the other parts of the church, and by the dominant note of joy which rings through its services, how the faithful departed go at death into the |joy and felicity| of Paradise, there to wait, as the |Church expectant,| for the Resurrection and their |perfect consummation and bliss|, that the |Church expectant| and the |Church militant| are not two Churches, but the one Church of Christ in two places and in two states, on earth and in Paradise, fighting and waiting; that they have still |mystic sweet communion| in praise and worship and prayer -- the Church in Paradise leading our worship as the choir leads the worship of the congregation.

So, again, the choir may impress upon our minds how joy has place in the Christian life: that Christianity is not a religion of gloom, but of joy; that if Christ says, |Come, take up the cross, and follow Me,| He says also, |My yoke is easy, and My burden is light,| because the way of the Cross is the way into true joy.


So we pass through the transepts, which speak to us of self-sacrifice, into the choir, which speaks to us of joy. So long as self is first, the best and truest joy is shut out of our lives; but when self has been crucified, and love is first, -- love that delights to serve, and that believes still in the absolute and perfect goodness of God even when the cross is laid upon its shoulders, -- then joy comes in, the joy which is a foretaste of that which those in Paradise know, even as that is a foretaste of the perfect joy of heaven.

The Sanctuary. -- The chancel, as we have seen, represents in the symbolism of God's house that part of the life of His Church which is reached through death. The choir tells us of the worship and the |joy and felicity| of the |Church expectant.| The sanctuary tells us of that for which the Church in Paradise is waiting in expectation. It represents heaven, into whose blessedness the Church shall enter as the |Church triumphant| at the second coming of our Lord.

When we enter a church, the part which is the center of attention is always the sanctuary -- the place of the Altar. To this the other parts all lead up. It is the most elevated part, and here the dignity and beauty of the decorations center, just as {31} all our life in the fellowship of Christ's Church here on earth, our cross-bearing, and the worship by which we are prepared and trained on earth and in Paradise, all lead us heavenward.

The sanctuary is made the place of the greatest dignity and beauty, and is most richly decorated, because it is the place of the Altar; and it is through thoughts which come to us from the solemn service of the Holy Eucharist, which is celebrated at the Altar, that this part of the chancel is made the symbol of heaven.

Let us see from Holy Scripture what it is that our Lord, who in His love did so much for us on earth, is still doing for us in heaven. |We have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, ... called of God a high priest after the order of Melchisedec.... Because He continueth ever, He hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.| This is finely presented in one of our Eucharistic hymns:

|O Thou, before the world began
Ordained a sacrifice for man,
And by the eternal Spirit made
An offering in the sinner's stead;


Our everlasting Priest art Thou,
Pleading Thy death for sinners now.

|Thy offering still continues new
Before the righteous Father's view;
Thyself the Lamb forever slain,
Thy priesthood doth unchanged remain;
Thy years, O God, can never fail,
Nor Thy blest work within the veil.|

Now if we turn to the Office for the Holy Communion, we shall see how the oblation in the Holy Eucharist is linked in with this present work of our |great High Priest| in heaven.

In the Prayer of Consecration we say: |All glory be to Thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that Thou, of Thy tender mercy, didst give Thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by His one oblation of Himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in His holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that His precious death and sacrifice, until His coming again.... Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of Thy dearly beloved Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, we, Thy humble servants, do celebrate {33} and make here before Thy Divine Majesty, with these Thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto Thee, the memorial Thy Son hath commanded us to make.| What is done as we thus |celebrate and make before the Divine Majesty,| in the commemorative sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist, the |memorial| (|in remembrance of Me|) of Christ's |precious death and sacrifice,| is beautifully and strongly expressed in another of our Eucharistic hymns:

|And now, O Father, mindful of the love
That bought us, once for all, on Calvary's tree,
And having with us Him that pleads above,
We here present, we here spread forth to Thee,
That only offering perfect in Thine eyes,
The one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.

|Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim,
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the Passion of Thy Son our Lord.|

This is one way in which the sanctuary of the church reminds us of heaven -- by reminding us of what is done in the heavenly |holy place,| and also there.

Then, again, the sanctuary has the same {34} suggestiveness as the place of Communion. To have the communion of the presence and life of God, through Christ, this is the very center of the blessedness of heaven. What it is that we have here on earth in the |Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ| we will let our Lord Himself tell us. |In the night in which He was betrayed, He took Bread; and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My Body, which is given for you; Do this in remembrance of Me. Likewise, after supper, He took the Cup; and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins; Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of Me.|

So before He had said, anticipating this Sacrament of Communion which He thus ordained: |I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.... Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink {35} indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me.|

And so we pray in the Holy Eucharist: |Grant us, ... gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh, of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us.|

It all speaks of a foretaste here, in a Sacrament, of what heaven shall give in its fullness.

The sanctuary tells us of heaven in another way.

What the soul that gains its blessedness shall find in it we may put into one small but very sweet word -- |peace.|

Now the Altar in the sanctuary of the church, with its |perpetual memory| of Christ's |precious death and sacrifice,| stands for peace between God and us. The aim and purpose of that sacrifice was to bring about atonement, that is, at-one-ment, the setting at one, at peace. Christ |loved us, and gave Himself for us,| and by this sacrifice brought reconciliation between us and God, |having made peace through the blood of His cross.|


And so at the close of the Holy Eucharist celebrated in the sanctuary, after the |memorial| has been made before God which His Son |hath commanded us to make,| and we have been |partakers of His most blessed Body and Blood,| this is the Blessing with which the Church lets us depart -- a blessing which carries the thought up to what, in its fullness, waits for us in heaven: |The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.|

The oblation, the communion, the peace, of the sanctuary, these all tell us thus of heaven and the |Church triumphant.|

Of Christ's |mystical body,| with its fellowship and cross-bearing on earth, its passage through death to the joy of Paradise, and, waiting beyond, heaven, with its communion and peace through the Cross -- it is of this that the church as a building may speak to devout hearts.

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