Now that we are returning to our church buildings for Mass, many may feel like they have entered a harbor in a storm.
Most of us have been on a boat of one form or another, but the church – and its buildings – has long been referred to as a boat. Both “Noah’s Ark” and the “Barque (ship) of Peter” have been used as images to refer to the church Christ founded.
Some of this relates to the fact that several of the apostles were fishermen before meeting Jesus – including Peter and his brother, Andrew. They were also fishing when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them one morning and directed them to a huge catch of fish – symbolizing the people of God who would form the church (Jn 21:11).
In the second century, the theologian Tertullian, writing about the sacrament of baptism, linked baptism to the Gospel story (Mt 14:22-33) when Jesus walked on the water during a storm. “The apostles then served the turn of baptism when in their little ship, (they) were sprinkled and covered with the waves,” Tertullian wrote, “Peter himself also was immersed enough when he walked on the sea. … That little ship did present a figure of the church, in that she is disquieted ‘in the sea,’ that is, in the world, ‘by the waves,’ that is, by persecutions and temptations …”
By the fourth century, in a series of books called the “Apostolic Constitutions,” the shape of church buildings were likened to a ship, with the bishop as the commander of the vessel and the deacons as “mariners.”
As churches were built during the first centuries of Christian history, a certain structure arose that still exists, with some modifications, today. It can certainly be seen in many of our churches built prior to the mid-1950s. In these, the center aisle is called the “nave.” The resemblance to the word “navy” is not a coincidence. Both words derive from the Latin “navis” for “ship” which in turn comes from the Greek “naus” for “ship” – think “nautilus.”
Besides being the main aisle of the church, the nave also has the highest ceiling. Following the structure of many medieval cathedrals, the church ceiling is often vaulted and supported by ribs that flow down to the pillars. Looked at upside-down, the nave resembles the body of a ship, with the pillars as its support walls and the vaulted ceiling as the keel. Windows at the top of the nave are the clerestory windows, but can remind us of portholes.
The nave extends from the entry to the area toward the front known as the transept. In large churches, the transept intersects the floor of the nave and forms a cross shape. In aerial views, this cruciform shape can be seen more easily. Where the nave and transept meet is appropriately called “the crossing.” In some churches, a dome rests above the crossing. In others, the steeple rises above the crossing.
The area from the transept to the sanctuary was known as the chancel and was often rounded, like the prow of a ship. While the nave and transept formed a cross, the chancel formed the head of the cross — again best viewed from above. “Chancel” comes from a Latin word meaning crossbeam (cancelli).
The nave was reserved for the people. The chancel contained the sanctuary with the altar — the altar area is known as the apse. An apse often has a vault over the altar or even a dome or semi-dome. The word “apse” came from a similar design in Roman basilicas – governmental buildings where the official would sit for court. Basilicas were often the first buildings used as Christian churches, once Christianity became an accepted religion in the fourth century.
The chancel, with its apse, was the area used by the clergy. As churches got larger, the area also grew longer to contain the choir — which in times past consisted of the members of religious communities.
Besides the altar and choir, some apses contained a walkway behind that altar area. This was called an ambulatory and might even have small chapels radiating off of it.
The Rood Screen
In earlier churches, the chancel area — or at least the altar area — was separated from the people by a wooden screen that came to be called “the rood screen.” This is because the screen was adorned with the crucifix — which was often called the “Holy Rood.” “Rood” comes from Saxon and German words meaning “pole” or “stake.”
The rood screen, after the Protestant Reformation and the damage/destruction done to many Catholic churches, was replaced by what came to be known as the altar rail.
Even if your church is more modern in design, it still bears a resemblance to a ship and still has a nave in its center aisle. The transept may not be as obvious, but there is a walking space between the pews and the sanctuary that serves as its reminder.
Just as Noah and his family entered the ark and were saved from the turbulent waters, so we enter our churches to find the saving peace of Christ there. As Tertullian also wrote about the image of Jesus asleep in the boat (Mt 8:23-24), the Lord is roused by “the prayers of the saints, he checks the world and restores tranquility to his own.”
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; Apostolic Constitutions at newadvent.org; Our Sunday Visitor at osv.com; Encyclopedia Britannica; khanacademy.org; philipkosloski.com; Online Etymology; nationalchurchtrust.org; trinitysc.org; and jesuswalk.com