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INTRODUCTION — I was four or five years old when I first started going with my mother on the Saturday mornings when she prepared the altar for the Sunday Eucharist. More than 70 years later all I have to do is close my eyes, and I am back to that time at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

This was in the 1940s. At home, you wore an apron to protect your dress from getting dirty while you worked. In church, you wore a smock to protect the sanctuary from what might be on your own clothes.

And oh the wonder of the sacristy!…

THE aroma of fresh cut flowers filling the sacristy as they stood in a bucket of water in the galvanized sink + THE hush of the sanctuary that meant it was a Holy place + THE smells of silver polish, Brasso and furniture polish that always means getting ready for the arrival of special company + THE gleam from the polished silver and brass + THE care with which the linens were prepared and placed upon the altar (or stored, each kind in its own special box or drawer); AND

My fascination with the carvings, the embroidery, the hangings, the vestments, the candles, the windows, all the various decorations in the church, continues.

Over the years we moved a lot. I couldn’t help noticing things that were the same in various churches and things that were different or unique in each place. And the symbols — what did they mean; why were they there (or only in one church and not another)? Why IHC or IHS? CHI RHO sure looked like XP to me! The Greek word for FISH, IXTHUS, was both a secret Christian symbol and an acronym for an early creed: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior;” Alpha and Omega: “I am the beginning and the end;” IHS with a line over it: Greek abbreviation for Jesus (or IHC, sigma in upper/lower case); and INRI (line over), the Latin acronym for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” the sign nailed to Jesus’ Cross. Church alphabets were a puzzle to me then, and sometimes they still are.

That was well over half a century ago, and I still feel much the same way now….except I know a bit more than I did then, and I’ve grown to love God and God’s church even more. As I was writing this, I began to wonder whether those times were part of the beginning of my call to serve as God’s priest.

Bless us, O Lord God, in our work and in our worship. Grant that the colors and metals may remind us of the beauty of your creation; that the warmth and light of candles may speak to us of the warmth of your love and the brightness of the Gospel message; and that the devotion and zeal of each Altar Guild member may reflect that dedication which befits our calling. In the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior we pray. Amen. (~Charles L. Wood)

The seven “last” words of the church: “We have always done it that way.”

No, we haven’t. Always is a very long time.

THE CHURCH — a sheltered place where the Church, aka the People of God, gather to worship God in community with one another.

Huge cathedrals, tiny chapels, everything in between: a clearing in the woods of a church camp where stumps and boards comprise pews and altar, a hospital room with an overbed table, chairs around a dining room table, a stone sarcophagus in the catacombs, any place where the faithful gather becomes Church. Maybe the seven last words of the church should be: “We’ve done it that way, somewhere, sometime.”

The inside of a church building can have several configurations: Monastic, where the rows of seats face each other across an aisle that leads to the altar (choir), or parallel rows of seats that face the altar on either side of the aisle leading to the altar (classroom/theater/bus), or rows of seats on three or four sides of the altar that so that all face the altar. Pews or chairs? Open pews vs. stalls with/without doors; Pew rentals purchase (condominiums); (Goldilocks):“Someone’s sitting in my seat.” Kneelers or cushions or none? Hymn racks or none? How about no seating at all, the way it was in a circular chapter house, with perhaps folding perches called misericords (mercy seats) for the elderly monks, or in churches before the Reformation, when folks stood for the whole service. After the dissolution of the monasteries, benches or pews were installed in rows so that folks could sit facing the person who would preach to them for a solid three hours. Holy Communion then was infrequent, maybe four times a year; offered at a small wooden table that was moved out of sight the rest of the time so not to be a distraction. Queen Mary of England brought the Roman Catholic sacramental worship back, and Queen Elizabeth I reformed/reshaped that. Other changes have occurred since.

THE NAVE — The space inside the church where the people gather for worship that is located between the narthex (porch) and the chancel and sanctuary, is called the nave. The word comes from navis, the Latin for “ship.” A ship was an early symbol of the Church. Pictures of ships would show the mast in the form of a cross. People were reminded of the presence of Jesus in the boat when he calmed the stormy seas that threatened to overturn it. The ceiling of the nave inside many churches looks as though it was made from a boat turned upside down on the shore. May any of the storms of life that threaten us be faced with that same calming assurance of the presence of the Christ in our own lives!

The word “rood” means a cross. In some churches a rood screen with the figures of St. Mary and St. John standing on either side of the crucifix, sometimes with angels at both ends of the rood beam, marks the beginning of the chancel, which houses the choir and leads to the altar rail that opens into the sanctuary. In spite of legends to the contrary, I don’t think any altar rail I’ve seen, even those with elaborate brass grapevines or flowers bracing the uprights, would keep a determined sheep or another animal (or a two-year-old) out of the sanctuary. I like the term communion rail better. It is a more user-friendly term, and suggests its helpfulness in kneeling and rising at communion time.

THE ALTAR — regardless of the seating arrangement, I think that when you enter an Episcopal Church, your eye should be drawn to the altar, the table around which we gather together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.

Where is the altar in your church? Is it

• In the center of the nave at the crossing or at the east end?

• Fixed against the east wall or free standing?

• Is it made of stone or wood? If it is wood, does it have a stone marked with five crosses inset in the center of the mensa (Latin for table)?

• Is the altar very large or a small table? Relax – there is no right size.

What does the front of the altar look like? Is it open, so you see the table legs, or does it have a solid front? Undecorated or carved? Lettered or painted? Are there any altar hangings? Jacobean or a frontal, with or without a superfrontal or just a superfrontal or maybe antependia? Are the hangings in seasonal colors or a festival brocade? Is the design modern or traditional? Are there orphries? Fringe? Words? Symbols? Such variety! The symbols often reflect the particular season of the church year. Or they can be general Christian symbols appropriate in any season. The accompanying pulpit fall and the lectern Bible markers (Do you have suspenders on an eagle?) are of matching materials, as are the priest’s vestments.

Remember, a plain table vested for the Eucharist and an ornate altar serve the same function as the place where we, the Church, gather around to celebrate and be fed by the Bread and Wine that has for us become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus the Christ.

If the altar is up against the east wall, you often find a step or steps at the back, called retables. Some have words like “Holy+Holy+Holy” across the front. A practical addition, retables may support a footed cross, flower vases and candles (salvation/resurrection/light of Christ).

Sometimes there is a tabernacle, a small cupboard in the center of the retable designed to hold the reserved sacrament and holy oils. At other times the sacrament is reserved in an aumbry in a niche on a side wall. Both may have a simple cross or a carving of a chalice and host on its door, but I have seen loaves and fishes, an XP, or a phoenix, a pelican in her piety; a pair of angels in adoration. When the sacrament is present, a sanctuary lamp lit nearby.

Behind and above the retable may be a wooden reredos with carvings or else a dossal curtain. Perhaps the dossal is a plain weave or an elaborately woven tapestry or one that is changed with the changing seasons of the Church year.

Maybe you have a stained glass window above and behind the altar. If the window has three panels, the Christ or the parish patron saint will be central. In place of the figure of a person, churches of some considerable age may show a variety of symbols, (Bible, cross and crown, wheat and grapes, chalice and host, the haloed dove of the Holy Spirit or Noah’s ark’s dove of peace, hand of God, alpha and omega, lamb of victory, IHS and cross). These older windows are real historical treasures now, whether above the main altar or along the other walls of the building. Most churches have stained glass windows of varying ages and styles, of symbols and/or saints.

Perhaps, too, there will be the Stations of the Cross, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Ten Commandments. Sometimes you will find crosses or other symbols on plaques along the walls memorializing donors or beloved members or those who served in past wars or whose remains now rest in the churchyard or the columbarium. Some church walls are highly decorated, others plain.

BAPTISMAL FONT — Your church’s font could be circular or more like a flowing fountain, but most Baptismal fonts will have eight sides, often stone, decorated with various symbols on each side: the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; maybe the four evangelists; Noah’s ark, scallop shell, descending dove, John the Baptist, words or crosses. Yours may have a heavy wooden lid, perhaps topped by the dove of the Holy Spirit with its three-rayed nimbus (halo) showing it to represent one of the three persons of the Trinity.

The symbolism of the font’s eight sides comes from 1st Peter 3:20-22 “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the Ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Eight is also the number of regeneration, the eighth day of creation when all is made new (some say it is the era of grace).

If the Church building does not have a baptistery, a side room towards the rear of the church that houses the font, the font may be located elsewhere in the rear of the building to symbolize that the Christian enters the Church through baptism. The church’s font may be seen closer to the front of the church, near the crossing as a way of remembering our baptism.

A word about angels. Angels are spiritual beings who are depicted in art as having wings because they are messengers and with halos because they are God’s messengers (not from FTD) and sometimes wearing the dalmatic vestments of deacons because they bring God’s messages to the world. We mortals are beings who are created “a little lower than the angels,” and can never become angels. Why should we want to be? By our baptism, we have become Jesus’ sisters and brothers. Wow!

“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Bless the bed I lie upon.”

The four winged creatures that are the symbols of the four evangelists come out of the Old Testament book of Ezekiel and the New Testament book of Revelation.

Ezekiel 1:10 – “the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle.”

Revelation 4:7 “the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.

Since about the fifth century, these are the symbols ascribed to each:

• The winged man for Saint Matthew because his Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus and he stresses the human side of our Lord’s ministry;

• The winged lion for Saint Mark because he begins his gospel with the voice, like a lion, of one crying in the wilderness;

• The winged ox (at times a calf) for Saint Luke who begins by telling of the priest Zechariah and the sacrificial nature of Christ’s ministry;

• The winged eagle for Saint John whose Gospel rises to great spiritual heights presenting the divine character of our Savior.

Some Church Fathers have suggested that each Gospel symbol represents one of the chief events of our Lord’s earthly life:

• The winged man – Jesus’ incarnation

• The winged ox – His sacrificial death

• The winged lion – The resurrection (The lion was believed to be born dead and brought life on the third day by the sound of his parent’s voice.)

• The eagle – Christ’s ascension

The evangelists’ symbols are frequently seen on processional and altar crosses, in stained glass, and often on the cover of the Gospel book.

THE CROSS -— an instrument of painful torture and agonizing death. It doesn’t matter how beautifully it is decorated or embedded with jewels; a cross cannot disguise the fact that our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ, suffered and died with nails embedded through his limbs to hold his body to hard wood of the Cross.

There are hundreds of different crosses, but only a few basic shapes. The Greek Cross has four arms of equal length (like the Red Cross) and is found marking the five wounds of Christ on the altar top and on fair linens. The Latin cross is the shape we see most often in church. It resembles the cross on which Jesus died. It has a lower vertical member that is longer than either horizontal arm or the vertical part above the arms. There are three general types of the Latin cross, two of which have a corpus (or body) on them. The earliest of these is the Christus Rex (Christ the King) with the Risen Christ in priestly robes, wearing a royal crown. Next, the crucifix with the body of the dying Christ nailed to the cross. Last is the empty cross, plain or adorned, proclaiming that Christ is Risen. Saint Andrew’s cross (cross saltire) is in the shape of the letter “X” ; the tau cross looks like the letter “T”. Four tau crosses joined together at the bottoms form the cross potent. When there is a small Greek cross set between the arms of this cross, it is known as the Jerusalem cross, the emblem of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Other crosses include the Canterbury cross, and the Celtic cross, with its arms braced within the circle we associate with eternity.

You can find the sign of the cross almost any place you look: on doors, windows, floor tiles, telephone poles, anywhere. A Godsign is any Christian symbol anywhere you find it. A stop sign with its eight sides is a reminder of your baptism. A three-sided yield sign, the Trinity; or the X of the railroad crossing signs, St. Andrew; butterflies, the resurrection. The more Christian symbols you know, the more you will find in the world around you, for that is where most of them originated. Look.

The compass rose, seen in the floor beneath the altar here at Saint Christopher’s has become the emblem of the Anglican communion. It was designed by Edward Nason West, late canon of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, who helped along the way with the shaping of this church. The following description is from page 98 of his very good book Outward Signs: The Language of Christian Symbolism:

The Compass Rose, the emblem for the Anglican communion, centers on the cross of St. George, with the points of the compass radiating from it to illustrate the worldwide spread of its’ apostolic and evangelical faith. In place of the usual decoration marking north, a mitre has been substituted as the time-honored symbol of the Apostolic Order essential to the churches that constitute the Anglican communion. The inscription encircling the shield (“The Truth shall make you free,” the words of Jesus in John 8:32) is in the original New Testament Greek, which, unlike Latin or English, is the only language studied in common by scholars throughout the Anglican communion. Designed for the 1954 Anglican Congress at Minneapolis, the Compass Rose has been used by all subsequent Congresses, and at the latest Lambeth Conference, this symbol in bronze was inlaid in the pavement of Canterbury Cathedral. It has been adopted as the emblem for the London headquarters of the Anglican Executive Office, inspiring the cable address “Compasrose.” 

Reverend Sarah V. Lewis to the Diocese of MA Altar Guild, April 2017

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