The Church of St. Peter
How a Church Came to Be - The History and Symbolism of Church Buildings
Called to be God’s PeopleChurch buildings have been so much a part of our landscape we usually take little or no time to think about them. But how did they get here? Churches vary greatly in size, shape and architectural style (e.g. Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque). Church buildings also vary widely as they express their own unique tradition within the spectrum of Christian traditions ( e.g. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant). Despite this diversity most churches share a similar intentional interior plan. In this article I’d like to explore how church buildings came to be and the meanings and symbols of our sacred space.
Before I start describing narthexes and chancels, and other such odd churchy words, it is always good to start with some basic definitions as a foundation. What does “church” mean and where did the word come from?
Our English word church (from the Saxon cirice or cyrice, Middle English chirche ), like the German word Kirche, or the Lowland Scots “Kirk” comes from the Greek word “kyriakon” meaning “the Lord’s” and would appear to mean the Lord’s people and not necessarily a building.
Prior to the word “church” the Greek word “ekklesia” (ecclesia in Latin form) was the most commonly used word to describe the gathering of the Christian community. Ecclesia comes from a Greek word meaning those “who are called out”. There is some debate as to whether this “calling out” has a spiritual dimension (called by God) or a more practical meaning as those who are “called out” to assemble in any kind of group. Again, the word ecclesia does not imply being called into building per se. Ecclesia has found its way into many Latin languages such as French’s eglise and the Italian chiesa.
Long before Christians gathered in buildings such as ours today, ecclesia or church meant people, the community of faith. Then, as now, the church is ultimately not built and held together by bricks and mortars, but rather by people called by Christ to build a better world. In a letter ascribed to St. Peter, we come together so we can be “living stones to be built into a spiritual house” (I Peter 2:5) with Christ being the “corner stone” and foundation of all that we do.
The spiritual house we call a church is above all intended to be reflection of heaven arrayed in signs and symbols. A church is intended to be a map of heaven and how to get there. The church building is also a metaphor in stone of a people’s own spiritual journey as we make our pilgrimage from isolated individuals, into community, to the presence of the Divine.
This is the gate of heaven, the door of eternal life: it leads the traveller towards the stars. On entering, a person may penetrate the heavenly mountain, if he takes with him faith and hope as his companions. Here forgiveness may be sought, if the pilgrim enters with a devout heart, and on foot. Here also a sinner may shed his evil acts and with tears wash this sacred threshold. Then purged by tears of repentance and adorned with humility, he is worthy to enter the holy places of God. I believe that Jesus in his mercy forgives their sins, so that whoever enters sad will emerge more joyful.
Alcuin of York AD C.735-804
The Judeo-Christian Community
In the first century Jesus and his disciples worshiped, prayed and taught in the courtyards of the great Temple in Jerusalem, the spiritual heart of the Judaism, in the many synagogues throughout the Roman Empire, and in open air spaces wherever people have always gathered to hear a story or share local news. This should come as no surprise as Jesus was a born, lived and died a Jew. His disciples and early followers after his crucifixion were comprised from the diverse traditions, cultures and languages of the greater Jewish world. The only Bible they knew was the Jewish scriptures in either Hebrew, Aramaic or its Greek version (The Septuagent), and the prayers and customs of the Jewish household. When St. Paul writes his letters to such cities as Corinth or Ephesus he is writing to the Jewish Christian communities who gathered in those cities’ synagogues. The Synagogue (a Greek word meaning the “coming together” or “assembly”) in the first century acted as a community centre, prayer and study hall for Jews and Jewish Christians. Although the religious centre of the Jewish world was the Temple in Jerusalem, for those far away from the Temple synagogues may have played greater roles as houses of prayer and worship.
Synagogues in the days of Jesus and his disciples were simple unadorned square or rectangular buildings. Where possible the synagogue was built so that the assembly could pray facing Jerusalem. At one end of the building was the Ark, a veiled cupboard or niche in the wall which contained the sacred scrolls of the Torah reminiscent of the inner sanctum of the Temple. Sometimes the Torah was kept in a separate curtained-off room. An eternal flame called the “ner tamid” burned in front of the Ark recalling the menorah candelabra that burned in the Temple symbolizing wisdom of the Torah and the presence of God. A desk called a “Bema” was set up for the reading of the Torah and in some synagogues early Christian letters and texts as well. Benches for sitting usually surrounded the walls. Gentiles or non- Jews attracted to the Jewish faith were welcomed in these synagogues and many of these “God-fearing” non-Jews were members and patrons of these synagogues. It is in the synagogues of the Greco-Roman world that non- Jews were probably first exposed to the Christian message.
The great watershed in Jewish and Jewish Christian life began in the latter half of the first century during the Jewish Wars for independence from the Roman Empire. In the year AD 70 at the end of this brutal and bloody struggle Jerusalem fell, the Temple, The Holy of Holies was desecrated and destroyed and the heart of the Jewish world was ripped out. Following the destruction of the Temple, Jewish faith and identity was under a cultural and military siege struggling for its very existence. Judaism needed to clearly define and salvage what was essential to the Jewish faith and tradition. Leading up to this time period the church was increasingly becoming dominated by non-Jews who did not follow Jewish customs and the church itself was discovering its own unique Christian identity and traditions. Eventually, these tensions led to a break between Jews and the early Christian communities. Despite this rift the early church inherited and shared a rich Jewish spiritual and theological tradition. The Church retained some elements of Jewish synagogue traditions that would later be adopted into early Christian architecture and worship such as the placement of lights and candles, ritual cleansing and baptism, the bema or pulpit and the tradition of facing east when praying. Vestiges of this shared spiritual heritage can still be heard in churches. The first part of the Eucharist, called the Liturgy of the Word, was adopted from the synagogue service. Our churches still echo with the Hebrew words “amen”, “alleluia”, “messiah” and “hosanna”.
At a Martyr’s Grave
Contrary to popular myth Christians did not go off into the catacombs, the underground burial vaults of the Roman world to worship during times of persecution. The image of Christians huddled in the catacombs to hold clandestine Masses is a Victorian fiction. The catacombs were the public burial grounds of Roman cities located right beside the busiest highways, such as the Appian Way. The catacombs were highly organized and regulated by the Roman civic bureaucracy and hardly a good place for a subversive sect like Christianity to hide out in during the sporadic persecutions of the church by the Roman Emperors. As well, the darkness, the lack of space, the air putrid and fetid with the stench of thousands of rotting corpses hardly made it a place for an assembly to gather for prayer, the community feasts and the Eucharistic Meal. Christians did visit the catacombs regularly and built small chapels above or in the catacombs to pray for their departed family, community members and martyrs, but the most practical place for a community to gather and celebrate its traditions would be someone’s house as will be explored further on in this work.
Possibly the earliest overt Christian architecture may have been small mortuary chapels built over or into the burial places of the saints and martyrs called “martyria”. We know that these were places of pilgrimage and prayer for early Christians as they have left votive lamps and inscriptions to mark their pilgrimage. However, martyria are too small and too far outside the city for communal worship (by Roman law burials had to be far outside city limits.) At later times churches would be built over these earlier martyr shrines. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a good example of this development. The first St. Peter’s Basilica was erected in the reign of the Emperor Constantine. This basilica was built over an earlier martyia shrine of St. Peter the Apostle. That martyria shrine, in turn, was built over the traditional spot where St. Peter was laid to rest in a simple pauper’s graveyard.
The Early Church House
Christian texts and archaeology show that Christians gathered in people’s houses. These houses were often the villas of the richer members of the Christian community. These church houses appear to have undergone significant renovations and additions to meet the needs of the Christian community. These facts shed some interesting light into a sometimes murky historical period in the early Church.
By the second century the church was growing in numbers and required larger spaces. We know from both Christian and Roman sources that the church welcomed into its midst people of every social, economic and racial and linguistic group, slave and free alike. For these groups to be bound together in a common creed and text, common meal and under the same church house roof was an unheard of departure from the hierarchical Roman class structure. This radical community would have had a wide appeal to a very broad spectrum of Roman society.
Many of these villas were owned and managed by women which hints at the important and often forgotten role of women in the early church as leaders, patrons and central figures in their Christian communities. One such church house that has survived is in the ancient city of Doura-Europos in modern-day Syria. An inscription on a wall indicates that this villa was converted into a church around the year AD 232, but it was likely used as a church house long before that time. The traditional Roman dining room called the triclineum and was the showcase of the well-to-do Roman home. The triclineum was decorated with the most beautiful frescoes and mosaic floors. The triclineum at Douras-Europa was converted into the main body of the church with an altar at one end of the room on a raised platform. Its walls are resplendent with colourful frescoes of various biblical themes. This room could hold about 100 people. Another later extraordinary mid-fourth century example of a church house family chapel is found in Lullingstone, Kent England. Many house churches became quite large and served a variety of ministries within the community. Many house churches evolved into what we would recognize today as church-run community centres. In addition to a house of worship they could also house the bishop and his clergy, administrative rooms, food and clothing banks, communal kitchens, orphanages and communities of consecrated widows and virgins. Later churches were frequently built over top of these early house churches. The “St. Peter’s House” in Capernaum, Israel, may quite possibly be the most remarkable and earliest example of the transformation from house to church to later Christian architecture.
The Basilica Church
The second great watershed in the evolution of a church’s sacred space occurred when the Emperor Constantine issued a series of edicts and letters from AD 306-311 declaring toleration for all religions throughout the Empire. In the year AD 312 it was said that Constantine converted to Christianity and with his support the once persecuted church received enormous imperial grants of land and money.
Now that the church could gather freely, what sort of building would be appropriate to house the church? The Church really had no uniquely Christian architectural precedents. Eventually the basilica form was chosen. A basilica is a long rectangular hall with a high, pitched roof, supported by a series of columns, with aisles down both sides of its length. Basilica comes from the Greek word for “king” and in the Roman era the basilica acted as a city hall, the legal courts, and as the name suggests the court hall of the king or emperor. At the far end of a basilica was an apse, or semi-circular niche where governors, magistrates or the emperor held court. In most apses a large statue of the emperor stood as a reminder of the presence of Roman imperial might.
From the 4th century onward the basilica was the model for all churches in Christendom despite how they will develop in differing styles over time and place. The basilica model was chosen to house Christian communities as they were the largest buildings of their type and could hold the huge numbers flocking into the churches at this time. They also provided open space for all to see and participate in the Liturgy which by its very nature is a highly visual, symbolic and active sacred drama.
The choice of the basilica was powerfully symbolic. The basilica, the king’s court, was at one time the place from which the power and order of the Roman Empire emanated. In the apse of the basilica the Emperor reigned and sat enthroned surrounded by his generals and senators ruling the lives of millions by the armed might of his legions. By adopting and adapting the basilica the Church was making a bold statement that power and glory did not belong to those who had wealth and armies of empire and conquest. But rather, there was another sort of kingdom and a power of a heavenly Kingdom at work in our world. Where once sat the divine Caesars now stood a simple stone altar surrounded by a bishop, a shepherd to his people, and the presbyters and deacons who served, not ruled, their people. By adopting and adapting the basilica, the church transformed an earthly court into a reflection of a heavenly court here on earth. The Church turned the Roman basilica inside out. Roman basilicas were built to outwardly impress people by their richly decorated exteriors of statuary, colour, marble, red porphyry, and granite. Christian basilicas on the other hand had rather dull exteriors of common red brick. They saved the richest, rarest and most beautiful materials and decorations for the inside of the church to inspire a sense of awe and to give them a foretaste of the splendour of heaven. This interior, inward, attention to beautification was also a metaphor for an inward beatification, an inward sanctification of a believer’s heart and soul to God.
In the Narthex
Following the legalization of Christianity thousands began to join the church. Some scholars have estimated that one third of the city of Rome was Christian by the end of the 300s.You wouldn’t think people joining the church would create a crisis. Yet it did. Where and how do the unbaptized and uninitiated fit into the community of the faithful? What should the church do with those who recanted their faith during the persecutions of the Church? Despite countless martyrs, the majority of Christians under threat of torture and death renounced their faith and offered prayers and incense to the Divine Caesar and the Roman gods. Where do they fit in the worship of those who remained faithful? Some Church Fathers believed they should be expelled from the community. Most agreed they could be readmitted to the community after a time of repentance and penance. As both the catechumens (those learning the faith) and the penitents were not in full communion with the church and could not fully participate in the celebrations of the Holy Mysteries, the Church deemed that they should be separated until full inclusion occurred. Catechumens and penitents would remain separated at the back of the church in the narthex (Greek for “small box” or “chamber”) where they could join in the Liturgy up to the point that the Gospel was read. However, just before the Nicene Creed was said the narthex doors would be shut and the catechumens and the penitents would go to another area to learn the Christian faith and traditions. A remnant of this custom still survives in the Orthodox Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Just prior to the recitation of the Nicene Creed the non-baptized are asked to depart and the deacon intones to “guard the doors!” from those deemed as yet unworthy.
At the Baptismal Font
We traditionally find the baptismal fonts at the back of the church near the church’s doors. This symbolically represents that it is through the doors of baptism that we enter into the household of faith and our life in Christ. The early custom of the church preferred a full immersion or dunking baptism with “living water”, that is baptisms at a river or spring. However when this was impractical, fonts became the norm. Fonts varied in shape, material and size over time and from place to place. The baptismal font in the house church at Dura-Europos was shaped like a Roman sepulchre to emphasize baptism’s sacramental spiritual death and rebirth. Many baptismal fonts echoed this death and rebirth imagery by being cut into the ground as if the baptismal candidate was entering and leaving a grave reborn. Some early medieval fonts are the size of hot tubs to accommodate full immersion baptisms for adults. Starting sometime in the 4th or 5th century many baptismal fonts took on the octagonal or eight-sided basin shape. For the ancient world of the Church Fathers the number eight symbolized the hypothetical or non-existent “eight day”, that is the day following Christ’s resurrection, the day of new life and new beginnings.They saw the eighth day as a day outside human time, because for those who had been baptized their journey into God’s timelessness already has begun.
What’s In the Nave?
Let us now make our journey from the font into the main assembly area of the Christian community called the Nave. Nave comes from the Latin word “navis” meaning ship. From the earliest times the Church has portrayed itself in art as a boat - a metaphor signifying that the church is on the move. It is on a mission. It is on a spiritual journey. The church is a second Noah’s ark. Like Noah’s ark, the church carries new life and hope to a deluged world. While Peter was fishing Jesus said to him that he would make him a “fisher of people”, and so too the church seeks to draw all people to God. A ship’s mast and crossbeam reminded Christians of the cross and a ship’s ropes and rigging reminded them of a ladder to heaven. The arched and gabled roof of many churches mirror the hull or ship’s bottom pointing toward the heavens.
Prior to the 16th century very few churches, if any, had seating as the usual posture for worship was standing and kneeling. The wealthy often brought their own chairs, cushions or small benches to the Mass. Some of these seating arrangements became permanent, but only for the privileged elite. As the Protestant reformation dawned reformed churches installed benches or pews to accommodate the nature of the Protestant services which emphasized the sitting postures of listening to scripture and sermons, and psalm and hymn singing.
The centre aisle leading straight from the back to the front of the church and on to the Sanctuary is said to represent the straight and narrow path we must follow that leads to salvation. The central aisle again emphasizes the church as a metaphor of a spiritual path and journey as we carry on from our baptism.
Roman Catholic and many Anglican churches have the Stations of the Cross around the walls of the church. Station comes from the Latin “to pause” and at each station the devout would pause, pray and meditate on Christ’s passion. These fourteen stations portray Christ’s suffering from his judgment by Pilate to his entombment and blend both scripture and ancient oral tradition in the telling of Christ’s passion narrative. The Stations of the Cross mirror the original places of Christ’s suffering as he carried the cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Beginning in the fourth century pilgrims journeyed to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus. Today’s stations originated in the 14th century as a devotional way for people to make a pilgrimage in heart and spirit and walk with Jesus as he carried his cross. Artistic representations of the Stations of the Cross only began in the late 16th century.
Most churches within the catholic tradition (Orthodox, Anglican, Roman Catholic) have a variety of images, chapels, stained glass, banners, statuary, paintings or icons dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the saints to varying degrees. Memorial plaques commemorating the departed local “saints” of a Christian community adorn many a place within a local church. All these images remind us that our journey to God is not made alone. We follow and share in the life of Christ together by our relationship with Christians of all time in our fellowship in the Communion of Saints. As we gaze around the church and see the stained glass or icons of the saints we are reminded that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” and that we worship not alone but “with the whole company of heaven.”
As we travel a little further to the front of a church there will be a pulpit (Latin for platform.) A cross or crucifix customarily is on or above the pulpit to fulfill St. Paul’s words that we may only “preach not of ourselves but Christ Jesus as the Lord, and him crucified.” (2 Corinthians 4:5) A lectern (from Latin “to read”) may also be at the front of the church on a raised platform to read prayers and scripture. In the ancient basilicas this raised platform was nearer to the middle of the church and was called an “ambo” from the Latin “to go up”. The symbolism was that the preacher or the reader of the Gospel was “going up” as on a mount to preach as Jesus did.
As we journey a little upward we come to the raised platform called the Chancel. Chancel may refer to a lattice screen separating the nave from the Altar Sanctuary. “Chancel” may come from the Latin word “to sing”, and it is here that the choir and cantors sing God’s praises. The raised platform symbolizes the division of earth and the heavens. The nave, which symbolically represents the church on earth, and the chancel, which symbolically represents the heavens, is connected by steps which is said to recall Jacob’s ladder - a direct connection between heaven and earth. The chancel symbolically represents the angels of heaven. They are joined in that chorus by the Church here “below” who together continually praise God in his heavenly sanctuary.
The Sanctuary of the Altar
Travelling through the “heavenly realms” of the choir chancel we finally arrive at our pilgrimage’s destination. We arrive at a place called the Sanctuary, the holy place and time where we come into the Divine presence. Sanctuary comes from the Latin word “sanctus“ meaning “holy” and this is considered the Holy of Holies in the Christian church and symbolically represents the place where we meet God. The Sanctuary contains the most sacred objects in the church - the Sacrament and the Altar.
“Altar” comes from the Latin word meaning “a high place” and alludes to the high mountain tops where in the Hebrew tradition people encountered God (Abraham, Moses, Elijah, The Temple on Mt. Zion, Jesus transfigured on Mt. Tabor.) Sacred high places were thought of being a little closer to God in the heavens and a place where heaven and earth could meet. Church Altars are usually elevated as a continuity of this ancient biblical symbol.
For Christians the ultimate meeting place between God and humanity was not a place, but a person - Jesus. We see the face of God in the humanity of Christ’s love. The Altar represents Jesus who united earth and heaven in himself. It is to Jesus that we go so that our earthly humanity may be united to, transformed by and share in Christ’s divine nature. This is done through the Holy Eucharist at the Altar.
As a symbol of Jesus the Altar is shown signs of love and reverence. Altars are consecrated (made holy) by marking it with the five wounds of Jesus’ body. We bow towards the Altar to honour and adore Jesus who is symbolically represented by it. Priests and Eucharistic ministers may kiss it as a sign of love at the beginning and end of the Eucharist. The Altar can be incensed. In Byzantine court ritual the emperor was honoured with incense. An Altar can be incensed to honour and pay homage to Christ our King with the rich and ancient biblical symbol of incense. On Maundy Thursday in Holy Week we strip the Altar as the soldiers stripped Jesus’ body before crucifixion. The Altar is then washed in vinegar and water as a foreshadowing of the gall of the cross and the preparation of his body.
When an Altar it is made of stone or is a solid square or rectangular shape the Altar reminds us of the place of sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. As a place of offering we recall Christ’s sacrifice on the “altar” of the cross at each Eucharist. It is around the Altar that the Church brings its sacrifice of prayer and thanksgiving. The four corners of the Altar are called the “four horns of the Altar” alluding to the four points on the altar of sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. At the church’s Offertory, incense may also be offered at the Altar at this time as an allusion to the ancient Temple liturgy, as our prayers and offerings rising “as incense” (Psalm 141:2) and of the prayers of the saints (Rev.:3,4).
The solid rectangular-shaped altar also reminds us of Jesus’ resting stone in the Holy Sepulchre and the sarcophaguses of the martyrs. By associating and celebrating the Holy Eucharist on these classic images of death the Church proclaims that out of the darkness of death Christ is the source of new life. That new life is then imparted to his disciples in the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist.
The Altar is also known as the Holy Table or the Lord’s Table and can be made of a variety of materials. The Holy Table reminds us of a table in any home where a family celebrates and shares a meal together. At the Holy Table the family of the Church gathers around its Lord and celebrates that we are in the Lord’s presence. The wooden table-style Altar reminds us that the Divine Presence can work through the most simplest of things - a table, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine and where two or three are gathered together.
In the early church Altars were free-standing in the sanctuary, that is, not attached to the back wall of the church. The bishop or priest celebrated the Eucharist with deacons and cantors encircling around the Altar all facing the people. This positioning emphasized that the whole Church, both lay and ordained, gathered around the centrality of the Altar to celebrate the faith through the Holy Mysteries. In recent years the Church has rediscovered this ancient Altar arrangement. By the Middle Ages in the western church the Altar eventually was placed at the far end of the sanctuary with the priest celebrating the Eucharist with his back to the people (“eastward celebration”.) This position of the Altar and priest was to emphasize a sense of transcendence in worship, that is, both the priest and people not only focused their worship towards the Altar, but above and beyond it to the God of mystery and awe. With the focus of worship at the east end of the church, the wall behind the Altar, called the Reredos (from Latin “behind and back of”), became highly decorated with paintings, carvings and sculpture depicting various biblical and saints’ scenes. In the Orthodox Church the Altar has always been free-standing within the sanctuary with the priest officiating from a variety of positions as the Liturgy requires.
To emphasize the Sanctuary and Altar’s sacred otherworldliness the early church would often veil the holy place of the Sanctuary with curtains as was done in the Jerusalem Temple. In the Eastern Orthodox Church this evolved into an ornate icon-covered wall called an Iconostasis. In the Western Church the curtain wall evolved into a wooden or stone wall called a Rood Screen. “Rood” is a Saxon for the cross or crucifix that was mounted on top of the screen. Altar rails were added in the Middle Ages to further denote the sacredness of the Sanctuary of the Altar.
The Bread of Life
From the earliest days of the church the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist was carefully reserved in a small precious container and taken into the homes of the sick and those unable to attend worship. Over time this movable box, called a pyx (Greek for “box”) or tabernacle, became attached onto or in a wall-like a cupboard. Tabernacle means “tent” or “dwelling place” in Hebrew and refers to the portable tent shrine of the ancient Jews where it was believed the Divine Presence of God (The Shekinah) chose to dwell. It is in the church Tabernacle that we reserve the Sacramental Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. This box is sometimes erroneously referred to as an “ambry” or “aumbry”. However, an ambry (armoire shares the same word origin) is actually a cupboard for storing vestments and sacred vessels.
Above or around the Tabernacle burns a candle called the Presence Lamp. The Presence Lamp recalls the eternal flame that burned before the presence of the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple and reminds us that Christ is always in our midst. The other lamps and candles that burn in the Sanctuary and throughout the church remind us that Christ is the Light of the World.
Usually above or behind the Altar a variation of a cross or crucifix will be present. However, this was not always the case. Early Christians were all too familiar with the horrifying and humiliating reality of crucifixion. You can imagine how popular a hangman’s noose or an electric chair would be as a symbol of a new religious movement today. Possibly the first known image of the crucifixion appears as anti-Christian graffiti scratched into a plaster wall of a first century Roman building. On this graffiti a person named Alexemenos worships a man nailed to a cross with an ass’ head with the inscription “Alexemenos worships his God.” After the early fourth century simple or stylized crosses became more frequent decorative elements on all things pertaining to the Christian community.
Above the altar in most churches was a mosaic, frescoes or icons of Christ, his apostles, The Virgin and Child, various saints and symbols or the patron saint of the church. It was in the 6th century and afterwards that we begin to commonly see the cross with the body of Christ on it. By the early Middle Ages in the Western Church the crucifix behind, on or above the Altar had become common as was statuary of Christ and his saints. In the Eastern Church icons were and remain the only sacred and devotional art of the Orthodox Church.
It is ironic that at one time the central focus of a Roman basilica was a the image of Caesar. Caesar, a man who was exalted enough to be called a god was eventually replaced with the image of God who humbled himself to become a man.
In the year AD 987, Vladamir, Prince of Kiev in the Ukraine sent out emissaries to go shopping for the best religion for him and his people to embrace. Two emissaries landed in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople where they visited one of Christendom’s most magnificent churches - the Hagia Sophia or Church of the Holy Wisdom built on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. It was completed in the year AD 537. So struck with awe at the overwhelming sense of the beauty of holiness and the splendour of the church’s liturgy they reported back to their prince, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Every church hopefully in its own way is a little piece of heaven on earth. The church building is a metaphor laid out in brick, wood, iconography and stained glass of the Christian cosmos. Hidden within the layout and design of church is an allegorical map to heaven.
In the End is Our Beginning
Symbolically we are called from the outside to enter and journey on a narrow path that leads to sanctuary - “holy ground”. We enter through the doors by the waters of baptism. We board a ship with our fellow travellers - saints, sinners, the wise and the befuddled alike join us as travel ahead. Together we try to keep the ship afloat and on course. We rejoice and sing with the angels and saints along our way until we reach our safe harbour and our final home in the sanctuary of God’s presence.
But we cannot rest there. We are ecclesia a people “called out” to go out into the world. We are nourished in Word and Sacrament to have the strength to go from the Altar to the doors and then out into the world to be the Presence of Christ whom we have received in the Eucharist.
By Dean Rose.
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