Monday, August 12, 2013

Soundbites on the Church Building

I got a suggestion from Chris to insert in more illustrations into my writing.  This next topic I was planning to follow up on the Soundbites on the Liturgy would probably lend itself to this a bit more.  Hopefully I can work out the technology involved.

The church building is something that we tend to take for granted.  Many of the objects in the church has a story behind it.  In the more historical churches there is a often a story behind the statue or picture that you would encounter.  When I was in London, I would take my friends around the church or cathedral they are visiting and tell them stories.  The one hour or so we took contrasted with the 10-minutes walk-in, walk-out they normally take & ooh-aah at the beautiful views with the photos to boot.  One of my most memorable visit to a cathedral was following behind a grandmother who stopped at every statue and told the story of the person to her grand-daughter.  There is much to see in any church.

But tours of specific churches, while interesting, is another subject.  In this blog, I would take you on a tour of your parish church and share with you the significance of what you see.  So, come on in but no photos!

Church entrance
At the church entrance, you will sometimes find a plaque, which tells the date and the Bishop who consecrates that church.  A Catholic church can only be a Catholic church when it is consecrated by the Bishop and is given a name, the name of its patron saint.  Once the name is given, it cannot be changed.

Layout of the church
If you look at the church from the air, you will see the shape of a cross.  The front entrance of the church is the bottom of the cross and the altar is at the top of the cross.

The long part of the church (the bottom of the cross when you look from the air) is known as the nave.  At the end of the nave is the sanctuary, where the altar is.  Then, at either side of the sanctuary are the two wings of the church, called the transepts.

Normally, the entrance faces west and the altar faces east.  In the olden days, people believed that the East represents the heavenly Jerusalem while the West represents the evil world.  So when you enter the church and walk towards the altar, what you are doing is moving away from the evil world and approaching heaven.

Blessing before entrance
That is why we have holy water at at the entrance of the church for you to bless yourself when you enter the church.  This is to allow you to approach heaven (the altar) with a clean heart.

Also, the confessionals are near the entrance of the church so that people can make their confessions before going for communion at mass.

The nave
Once inside the church, you are in the nave.  The word comes from a old Latin word, meaning ship (same root word as in naval).  It refers to Noah's Ark, when everyone in the Ark is saved while all those outside the Ark is lost.  So, when you walk down the nave, you can imagine yourself within a huge ship, safe from any storm outside.

The nave is filled with wooden benches, called pews.  Each column of pews are separated from each other by aisles.  Pews often have cushioned kneelers to make is more comfortable to kneel at mass.  These kneelers are attached to the pews, either fixed or hinged so that it is can be raised to let people walk.  If there are no kneelers, cushions are sometimes available in little shelves in the pews.

Not all churches have pews.  Some have chairs which you can take in and out of the church.  In the olden days, there are no pews or chairs at all and people stand for the entire mass.  In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, that remains the practice today and there may be some chairs available along the walls of the nave for the older people who cannot stand for the whole mass - and their mass can last for six hours!!

Stations of the cross
Along the nave church walls, you will find the 14 Stations of the Cross, either as paintings or as wooden images.  They depict the final journey of Jesus from his condemnation to his burial in the tomb on Good Friday.  We use the images to celebrate the Stations of the Cross, normally during Lent and on Good Friday.


Sacred Images
You will sometimes find statues, paintings of people along the nave walls, or on stained glass windows.  These people are saints, who are our friends in heaven and we remember them & what they did by these images.  Each saint is often depicted by a symbol.  For instance, St Peter is the bearded guy with two keys in his hand given to him by Jesus and St Francis of Assisi often has a bird around him somewhere as he used to preached to animals.


Sometimes, you will find stories from the Bible or the lives of saints on stained-glass windows or paintings.  In the olden days when most people are illiterate, such paintings and stained glasses are the best way for them to learn about the Bible and the saints.

The sanctuary
The sanctuary is that part of the church where all of the activity for the mass take place. They are normally distinctly different from the rest of the church, for instance built in a different stone like marble or cordoned off.  In the olden days, if a criminal reaches the sanctuary, he cannot be arrested unless he voluntarily leaves the place.

The altar is that big table in the middle of the sanctuary normally made of solid wood, stone or marble. That is where the sacrifice of the Mass takes place. The altar is normally covered with a white and clean altar-cloth.  On the altar, you will see only candles, maybe a microphone for the priest to use, and sometimes some flowers.  The centre of the altar is normally left empty so that the bread and wine will take a pride of place during mass. 

In the middle of all older altars (built less than 30 years ago) there is a small square hole, in  which is an altar-stone.  The altar-stone is what used to make an altar an altar.  It is marked with five crosses to represent the five wounds of Jesus and contains the relic of a saint.  Relics are normally a piece of bone, hair or something related to a saint.

Behind the altar is the crucifix.  A crucifix differs from a cross in that it has Jesus on it.  In all Catholic crucifixes from the big one in the church to the little one in our rosary beads, there is a little square on top with the letters INRI, which stands for Iesu Nazarene Rex Idumea, which is Latin for Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.  This was what Pontius Pilate wrote on top of the cross when Jesus was crucified to tell the world what he was accused of.

The position of the crucifix is very important as everything in the church relate to the position of the crucifix.  When we say the right of the church, we mean the right hand side of Jesus on the crucifix and the left side of the church is the left hand side of Jesus on the crucifix.

That is the reading desk at the front of the sanctuary for the readers and priest to read the readings and the Gospel as well as for the priest to give his sermon.  This lectern is called an Ambo.  In some of the older churches, it is decorated with the symbols of the four Gospel writers - a man for Matthew, a lion for Mark, a bull for Luke, and an eagle for John.  They represents the first passage of each gospel - see if you can figure out the symbolism.  More often, only an eagle is depicted.


Some older churches have two lecterns, one from which the priest will read the Gospel and the other for the readers to read the other readings.  Because the gospel is more important than the other readings, the lectern from where he reads the gospel will be on the right-hand side of Jesus on the crucifix.

Pascal candle
Next to the ambo is the Paschal candle (Paschal is what most non-English languages call Easter), which is lit for the Gospel readings.  It symbolises the light and enlightenment that we get when we hear the Gospel read.  A new Paschal candle is blessed every Easter during the midnight mass.  You can see the year etched on the candle together with the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet, symbolising the eternity of God, being the beginning and end of everything.

On the wall behind the altar is a little box, like a safe deposit box with a key in it.  This is the tabernacle, where we keep the consecrated body of Jesus after every mass.  During mass the priest or a communion minister will unlock the tabernacle and bring out the consecrated bread in there.  The bread is then used for mass together with any freshly consecrated bread.  Any left over consecrated bread at the end of mass will then be returned to the tabernacle and locked up.


A red light is lit next to the tabernacle called the sanctuary light, which indicates the presence of the Body of Christ in the tabernacle.  When we cross in front of the altar, we bow or genuflect as a sign of respect to the Body of Jesus as indicated by the lit sanctuary light. The only time that the sanctuary light is not lit is in between the end all the Holy Thursday mass and the beginning of the Easter midnight mass.  No mass is celebrated between those two times.  (I know what you are thinking - Good Friday is a service, not a mass)

In some churches, you will see a wooden canopy, made of fabric, metal or built into the ceiling above the sanctuary.  This represents the tent that the Jewish people used to keep the Ark of the Covenant while they were wandering about in the desert for forty years.

Older churches
In some older churches, especially those ornate ones from the medieval ages, the altar is stuck to the wall.  In the old days, the priest would be facing the altar with his back to the congregation when he says mass because the priest need to face the heavenly East (remember that the altar end of the church faces East) to conduct the Eucharistic sacrifice.


You can also find old churches where the sanctuary is cordoned off from the rest of the church by low rails, called the altar (or communion) rails.  People would kneel down in front of the rails to take communion and the priest will give walk down the rail to give communion in the mouth to everyone one by one.

Church wings
The two wings of the church are at the right and left hand of Jesus on the crucifix.  Remember that the right hand side is the more important side because in the olden days right represents good while left represents bad (think of all the words in English implying that fact and also, that is why we shake hands with the right hand).  So, the right-hand side of the church is considered the more important one.

Normally, both wings of the church contain side altars.  The right altar, being the more important one, is reserved for Our Lady.  The left altar would be for St. Joseph, or the patron saint of the church.  That is why the right wing of the church is sometimes called Mary's wing or the Gospel wing while left wing of the church is known as St. Joseph's wing or the Epistle wing (the Gospel being more important than the Letters in the New Testament).  If there is a Sacred Heart altar, it would be on the right and that would leave Mary's altar to be on the left. 

Baptism font
The baptism font is a basin where people are baptised by affusion (by pouring water over the head).  It is commonly at the wing of the church or at the front left hand side (Jesus' left) of the sanctuary.  In some churches which practices baptism by immersion (by immersing the whole body under the water), the baptism font is a shallow pool, often cross-shaped, with steps leading down to the water.  As it is much larger than a basin, there is no place for it in the sanctuary and is often moved to elsewhere in the church.  Baptism by immersion is practiced by the Eastern Catholic church and is getting more common now in Latin-rite churches after Vatican II.


The sacristy
The sacristy is at the back of the church, behind the wall of the sanctuary.  This is where all of the sacred vessels, sacred books and vestments are kept.  This is also the place where the priest, the ministers & altar servers gather and say prayers before the start of mass, and from there proceed into the church.


Sacred vessels
The sacred vessels are the cups and plates used for mass.  The cup to hold the bread is called the ciborium (pl. ciboria) while the cup to hold the wine is called the chalice.  The ciborium differs from the chalice in that it is broader and has a cover.  The little plate used when someone takes communion in the mouth is called the paten.  The sacred vessels are almost always made of metal and are always kept with respect.

Sacred books
The sacred books are books used for mass.  They are the Sacramentary, used only by the priest, and contains all the prayers for every single mass of every single day of the year.  The Lectionary contains all of the readings for every single mass of every single day of the year.  There are versions of the Sacramentary and Lectionary for special occasions. 

The Gospel book contains the gospel readings for every single mass of every single day of the year.  The Gospel book is sometimes wrapped up in very ornate fabrics, leather or metal.  Where there is no Gospel book and the priest uses the Lectionary.

Cathedral is the parish church of the bishop and is like any of the church except for one thing.  On the right side of the sanctuary (remember the right hand of Jesus on the crucifix) there is a chair, the throne of the bishop.  The word cathedral comes from the Latin word cathedra which means chair.  It refers to the chair of the bishop.  Therefore, the cathedral is different from any of other church because it has the chair of the bishop.

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