There are many symbols that we view every time we attend church that perhaps we don't appreciate or even recognize as an expression of our faith. Remember, a symbol is an object, or sign, that stands for something else.
For example, the Narthex or vestibule means the "outer court". In the Jewish temple there was an outer court where the Gentiles, or non-Jews, worshipped because they were not allowed to worship in the temple. Of course, that does not apply to us today, but we have an "outer court", a gathering place before entering the sanctuary where everyone is welcome to participate in the services.
Sanctuary comes from the Latin word ‘sanctum' which means "holy place". The Nave, where the congregation sits, comes from the Latin word ‘navis' meaning boat. A boat is often mentioned in the Bible. Jesus taught from a boat and an ancient document that provided instructions on how to build churches noted, "Let the building be oblong like a ship, facing east."
The Chancel rail separates the Altar area from the Nave. Frequently, in older churches, the chancel rail was solid, but in later years the chancel rail became more open, thus providing less separation between the minister and the congregation because we are all members of the body of Christ.
The Altar and the Cross are the center of worship. The altar is often raised three steps from the main part of the nave; the three steps representing the Trinity. The cross is a reminder of Christ's suffering on our behalf and God's eternal love for his children. Two lighted candles on the altar symbolize Christ, the light of the world. One of the candles represents the divine side of Christ and the other represents his human side.
The term reredos means a decoration behind the Altar, to accent the altar and make it the focal point of worship. In older churches the reredos were often quite elaborate with designs and symbols, but today a curtain or dossal cloth is more common. The dossal cloth at Bethel UMC is highlighted by the two shadows of the cross when the lights are on, symbolic of the three crosses at Christ's crucifixion.
The pulpit, located on the altar, is a raised platform or high lectern from which the minister delivers the morning message. Frequently, different colored altar or pulpit scarves adorn the pulpit and represent the six seasons of the church; Advent (blue), Christmas (white), Epiphany (green), Lent (purple), Easter (white), and Pentecost (green). The pulpit currently in use in Bethel UMC's sanctuary is the same one that was used in the original Bethel sanctuary that is now a part of the Refectory Restaurant.
And finally, there is the sanctuary's stained class windows, but they will be featured in a later edition of the newsletter. In the interim, the next time you walk into church, look around. Note the many symbols and reflect on their significance on your faith journey.
(A significant part of this article was drawn from a paper presented at a February 1, 1972 Bethel UMW gathering by Aura White.)