Sacred Spaces

Some weeks ago we began providing explanations, definitions, and clarifications regarding the various spaces and elements of our church. We last explained the Ambo, the Celebrants Chair, Images and Statues, Relics, and the Baptismal Font. We will wrap up today with explanations of the Altar Rails, Easter Candle, Sacristy, Stations of the Cross, the Ambry for Holy Oils, and the Confessionals.

The Easter (or Paschal) Candle is located near the baptismal font, the exception being during the Easter season when it is placed next to the ambo. Originating around the fourth century, this large candle represents the light of Christ, and a new Paschal candle is blessed during each Easter Vigil. It is lit for every baptism, and the flame, the light of Christ, is transferred to a candle given to the baptized individual or to an adult family member when an infant is baptized. The Easter candle is also lit during a funeral, recognizing that the deceased shared in the death and resurrection of Jesus at their       Baptism.

Now the Sacristy. The name comes from the Latin word sacristra, meaning “a room near the sanctuary or church entrance”.  And this room contains the bread and wine, sacred vessels, the books, the vestments, and actually…everything needed in the Celebration of the Mass. It is also the location where the priests and ministers vest. The Sacristy has been a part of the church ever since the first places of public worship were built in the fourth century. It is also here that the sacred vessels are cleaned after Mass. In most Sacristies there is a Sacrarium, which is a sink that drains directly into the earth where water from cleaning the vessels is poured.

In nearly every Catholic Church, fourteen Stations of the Cross ring the walls of the nave. We can walk along with Jesus as he makes the agonizing journey from Pilate’s house to his crucifixion on Calvary that first Good Friday. We halt at each station meditating on the actual or traditional events that took place at that particular spot. This most popular devotion evolved over several centuries. While many Catholics participate in this devotion every Friday of Lent, the stations are available for us to “walk” any time. The Stations of the Cross varied in number until Pope Clement XII (1730-40) settled on 14 and identified the events associated with each station.

Altar, or Communion, Rails help distinguish the sacred space of the Sanctuary, the “Holy Place” in the church.  The Sanctuary can be thought of as the equivalent to the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon, and the Altar Rail,    conspicuously absent in many churches built in the past 50 years, helps convey and provide awareness of the need to respect this Holy Space contained therein, with reverent silence and respect. Also this rail serves as a Communion Rail, which    provides assistance and comfort to those who desire to kneel when they receive the Body of Christ, allowing them to do so without great difficulty. Far from being fences that separate the priest and the congregation, they provide a reminder, framing the Holy Space.

The Ambry in each church is where the Holy Oils are stored for use in various ceremonies. New oils are blessed annually during Holy Week by the bishop at the Cathedral Chrism Mass. Then they are distributed to the parishes. These oils are: the Oil of the Catechumens, the Oil of the Sick and the Chrism. They are kept locked in an Ambry, a French word meaning wall safe or cupboard. Our Catechism says, “The Sacred Chrism…used in anointings…is traditionally reserved and venerated in a secure place in the sanctuary. The Oil of Catechumens and the Oil of the Sick may also be placed there.”

Confessionals. The first Christians confessed their sins face to face to a bishop in his church and in some instances to the congregation. Public confessions were short-lived and stopped by Pope Leo I (r. 440-461), who wrote: “It is sufficient that the guilt which people have on their consciences be made known to the priests alone in secret confession.” Face-to-face confession, typically kneeling before a priest or sitting in a chair at his side, was the norm until the middle ages when a screen was placed between the confessor and female penitents. This action eventually led to the introduction of the         confessional booth in the 16th century, which included the screen separation, and from that time until the Second Vatican Council, confessions were normally anonymous. In 1974, the Church introduced a new formula for confession, which promoted a reconciliation room instead of a confessional booth. Penitents could now go to confession face to face or behind a screen.

This concludes our walk through the Sacred Spaces of our Beautiful New Church. The primary purpose of all these accoutrements, holy elements, and spaces, is to heighten our awareness of the presence of  God…the very Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle. One very important way to reflect awareness and belief in this real Presence, is to maintain a prayerful environment at all times by maintaining a reverent and respectful silence. I would kindly encourage all of us to maintain that quiet self-discipline and encourage those we encounter in church to do so as well. The very first space we explained in this “corner” was the Narthex, which is our designated gathering and welcoming space along with our patio area in front of the church.

Yours in thanksgiving for our beautiful new Holy Space,