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The Mass Part 1 - Sacred Spaces

I was toying with the idea of writing several posts covering the Mass.  The thought turned to a need for action when a conversation between two people entering church was overheard.  One friend was explaining to the other that “you only do the holy water when you enter the church because it means you are crossing the Jordan”.   This was not something I had ever heard, nor was it something our pastor had heard. Therefore, I feel like a greater explanation of our Church, our traditions, and the Mass are needed  which brings me to this first topic. 

Sacred Spaces

If you are a regular Mass goer, then you are probably familiar with what the church looks like.  What pictures are hanging on the walls, what the furniture looks like, and especially where your favorite place to sit is located.  Each of these areas and objects serves a purpose and has a history behind them.  This post will provide an overview of some of these sacred objects and places. 

Narthex (Gathering space)

In Greek, Narthex means “giant funnel.” This is the entry area of the church, where people can gather and greet each other before and after Mass.  It is the space between the outside doors and inner doors of the church.  The narthex was once a waiting place where those not allowed to participate in the entire Mass would gather.  Although these restrictions are no longer so strict, the narthex is still there as a gathering place. 

Think of the narthex as a place where you can prepare to enter the body of the Church.  Just like early candidates and catechumens did, it is an area to prepare yourself to enter God’s house.  Here, we can put aside our secular ways, knowing we are about to enter a holy place.  Here, we can check our attitude, body language, ensure electronics are turned off, and even make sure our attire is fitting for the sacred Mass. 

Nave

In Latin (Navis) means “ship”.  We are passengers on a ship headed to heaven.  The Nave is where laity gathers for Mass.  Where we can pray and worship together.  This is not the place to visit, but a place to worship. 

Early on, there were no pews or places to sit.  People would stand or kneel when coming to Mass.  Pews or benches were not common until the 13th century, and then, as with many church building improvements, parishioner's often paid for them.  Some would purchase a pew and it would be considered the property of that person.  Maybe this is what some people are remembering when they sit in the same spot each time they attend Mass. 

Sanctuary

This is the (usually) raised area in front of the church.  The altar, ambo, chairs for celebrants and in many churches, the tabernacle are all located in the Sanctuary.  Raising the sanctuary higher than the nave separates it into an area that is a special sacred space, and it also makes it easier to view from the nave.

Altar

The altar is the most important part of the church.  Altar, in Hebrew, means “Place of sacrifice”.  Churches were built for the altar, and not the other way around.  In the beginning of Christianity, because of fear of persecution, worship happened in places that were secret or hidden. In those places, an altar may have been a small table.  Whatever it was, there was always an altar present. 

No. 1182 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes the alter in this way: “On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs.  The altar is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God are invited.”

Tabernacle

The tabernacle is the place within the church where consecrated hosts are kept.  Once hosts are consecrated, they become Christ’s body.  Any unconsumed hosts are stored in a tabernacle “in a worthy place in the church and should be constructed in such a way that it emphasizes and manifests the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament” (CCC 1379).    Wherever it is kept, the tabernacle is always locked and immoveable to protect the Eucharist. 

Sanctuary lamp

In every Catholic Church, there is a candle burning near the tabernacle.  The light is the same light the Magi followed to find the baby Jesus in the stable.  Its presence beckons us to Christ and signifies His presence.  It serves as a sign that the Lord is eternal, never to be extinguished.

According to Canon Law 940 - “A special lamp which indicates and honors the presence of Christ is to shine continuously before a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved”. 

Ambo/Lectern

The word of God requires a special place from which to be proclaimed.  A place where the people’s attention can easily be directed.  This is the place where the readings are proclaimed, it may also be used for the prayers of the faithful and the homily.  It’s location near the altar puts emphasis on the relationship between the Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. 

Baptismal Font

Located in every Catholic church where the congregation can participate in the baptismal ceremony.  Baptism is the gateway to all the Church’s sacraments and the graces we were given at our own baptism should be reflected upon each time we dip our fingers into the font and bless ourselves with the living water. 

Sacristy

From the Latin word sacristra, meaning a room near the sanctuary (or church entrance).  This is where all the items used for Mass are stored, and where the priests and ministers vest.  This is also where the sacred vessels are cleaned after Mass.  Most sacristies have a sacrarium, a sink that drains directly into the earth where water from cleaning the vessels is poured. 

While there are probably more areas or places, this is a beginning description of the sacred spaces located within most Catholic churches.  As you look around this weekend at Mass, hopefully you will see each area with a new appreciation for what it is and why it is there. 

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