Leaving the Baptistery, you enter the nave, the main body of the church. The word “nave” comes from the Latin word “navis” which means, “ship.”
The sanctuary area is located at the crossing of the nave and the transept. “The sanctuary is the space where the altar and ambo stand, and where the priest, deacon and other ministers exercise their offices” (Built of Living Stones, 22 and GIRM, #295). The predella, the raised platform placed in the sanctuary area, elevates the altar, ambo and chair of the priest celebrant, illustrating some of the ways in which the presence of Jesus is represented in liturgy. Other representations of Jesus during liturgy are the Eucharist itself and the assembly, the people of God.
The altar is the primary symbol of Jesus in the Eucharist. The word Eucharist is taken from the Greek word for thanksgiving. The Mass celebrated at the altar, then, is the highest act of thanksgiving for the gift of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
Masses offered by early Christians were celebrated in the follower’s homes and would have likely used the free-standing wooden tables found in those common homes. During the Roman persecution of Christians, the church went underground, celebrating Mass in the catacombs. Altars were erected over the tombs of martyrs and loved ones. Most of these altars were fixed and made of stone.
Our altar uses both wood and stone, emphasizing the vast and dramatic history of the Mass. The tabletop, or mensa, is made of stone, indicating Christ as the living stone (1 Pt 2:4). The base of the altar contains a reliquary with a relic of Saint Peter Chanel (patron saint of the Marist order). The reliquary also contains the altar stone from the original church’s altar. Keeping the relic of a martyr or saint under the altar is reminiscent of the early church’s practice of erecting altars over tombs in the catacombs.
The Catholic Church teaches that the altar is Christ (Built of Living Stones, #56). The faithful exhibit reverence for the altar by bowing toward it when entering and leaving the church for liturgy or whenever they pass in front of it. The priest and deacon kiss the altar at the beginning and end of Mass. The community has erected but one altar, signifying to the faithful the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the church (GIRM, #303). “Since Christ, Head and Teacher, is the true altar, his members and disciples are also spiritual altars on which the sacrifice of a holy life is offered to God” (Rite of Dedication).
The hand-built ambo is designed to be both an object and a place. Like the altar, the ambo is a place of encounter with God. With the altar, the ambo is a central symbol in the liturgical act of worship. The ambo has a “tabletop” design to illustrate the close relationship between it and the Eucharistic alter. At Liturgy, the community is fed at the table of the Word and at the table of the Eucharist. “The General Introduction to the Lectionary recommends that the design of altar and ambo bear a ‘harmonious and close relationship’ to one another in order to emphasize the close relationship between word and Eucharist” (Built of Living Stones, #61).
The ambo is the place where the story of salvation is revealed to the community. When the assembly takes the Word of God to heart, the ambo becomes a catalyst for ongoing conversion.
From this place, the Word of God is proclaimed by lectors, cantors, deacons and priests. The Scriptures are interpreted here through homilies crafted on the Scripture readings. The ambo is two-sided, allowing for two readers or cantors and to display of the book of the Gospels.
The Scriptures proclaimed during Mass are arranged in a cycle of readings, found in a book called the Lectionary.
The lectionary collects the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, arranging them in one volume to be used during the liturgy. Vatican II revised the collection of readings used during liturgy according to a three-year cycle. At Sunday Masses, a selection from the Hebrew Scriptures is proclaimed, a Psalm is read or sung, and a selection is proclaimed from one of the epistles. The Gospel is proclaimed from its own book (The Book of the Gospels). “Like the Torah in synagogue service, The Book of the Gospels is treated with respect. It is held aloft in procession and, like the altar, is kissed by the deacon or priest who reads from it” (Symbols and Images in Church, 19).
The chair for the priest celebrant is located on the predella and is given prominence because of the priest’s role in liturgy. He presides over the assembly and directs prayer (GIRM, #310). When the priest presides at liturgy, he represents to the community the person of Christ and so his chair is distinguished from all others. The seat for the deacon is placed near that of the celebrant.
The tabernacle is located in the sanctuary on the western side of the predella. Tabernacle comes from the Latin word for tent. In the Hebrew Testament, the tabernacle was used as a portable shrine, accompanying the Israelites on their journey into the desert. In it, the Ark of the Covenant was placed. The Ark of the Covenant was a wooden chest containing the tablets of the laws of the ancient Israelites. While the exterior of the tabernacle is made of cherry wood, the interior of the tabernacle is lined with cedar wood, representing the Ark of the Covenant.
The Christian tabernacle and the Hebrew tabernacle both symbolize the presence of God among the people. When the Eucharist is housed in the tabernacle, we are reminded that we too are a wandering people, placing our trust in God as we journey through life.
The hand-forged iron spire mounted on the tabernacle parallels the spire placed on the top of the church. As the rooftop spire marks the sacred place of the altar, the tabernacle spire marks the sacred place of the reserved Eucharist.
The candle near the tabernacle, called the sanctuary lamp, burns continuously as a symbol of the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, housed in the tabernacle.
The crucifix is a central image of Christian belief, suggesting the Christian journey of passion, death and resurrection. There is a distinction to be made between the symbol of a cross and that of a crucifix. The crucifix is a cross with the corpus (the body of Jesus) affixed to it.
Our crucifix is suspended directly over the altar and is 12 feet tall. The base of the crucifix is shaped like an anchor, which is an early Christian symbol of hope. The figures at the base of the crucifix are Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple.
Above the crucifix is the spire or cupola, the marker, both interiorly and exteriorly, of the sacred place of the altar.
The four major corners of the sanctuary crossing are marked with anointing stones. Made of Imperial Red granite, these stones were anointed by the bishop during the dedication to signify the blessing of the entire building.
The four lamps near the anointing stones were lit as part of the dedication liturgy, helping to identify the sacred space of the sanctuary area. They are lit only on the anniversary date of the church’s dedication.
In the nave are the festival lamps, candles lit during festal days throughout the church’s seasons.