We talk a lot about worshiping at the foot of the cross, and praying around the cross, but did you know that at Elim Lutheran Church, and also at many other churches, we worship within a cross?
In the first several centuries of Christianity, Christianity was an outlaw religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians met in secret, worshiping in homes or in secret churches in caves or cut into the rock of a hillside.
After the Roman Emperor Constantine died in 337 C.E., Christians were allowed to have churches legally for the first time. The early church architects built their churches in cruciform, or cross-shaped buildings. This was to symbolize the death and resurrection of Christ. Other traditional shapes are the circle, symbolizing the eternal nature of God, without beginning or end, and the rectangle, which is shaped like the buildings of the Roman law courts.
There are four main parts to the church-as-cross.
The part where the congregation sits is the lower upright of the cross. This is called the “nave,” from the Latin word navis, which means “ship.” (This is also the origin of the word “navy.”) This is because the celling of the church looks like the ribs of an upside down ship’s keel.
In front of the nave is the “chancel.” This is the space around the altar, and includes the pulpit and the lectern, if there is one. The chancel is also known as the “sanctuary,” although today we usually refer to the entire room as the sanctuary. The chancel is traditionally at the east end of the church building, facing the Jerusalem in the east. (The word “church” itself comes from the Greek word, kuriakon, which means “The Lord’s house.”) The chancel forms the top upright of the cross, and is usually raised a few steps above the nave.
Crossing the building between or close to the boundary between the nave and the chancel, is the horizontal arm of the cross. This is called the “transept, with the north arm being called the “north transept” and the south arm the “south transept.” These two areas are also sometimes called the “choir,” because the choir sometimes sings from those areas, often divided into two parts facing one another. The “sacristy,” a room where robes, vestments, paraments, and the communion vessels are stored, is often located in the transept.
The next time you are at worship, or as you drive by a church, look to see if it is shaped like a cross when viewed from above. If it is, it should remind you of Christ’s death and resurrection for you.
Note: This blog also appeared in “The Scribe,” the newsletter of Elim Lutheran Church, Volume 63, Issue 4, April 2013.