The Church Facade & Narthex

This post is part of a series on Getting the Most Out of Mass: tips to best dispose yourself to receive the graces available during Mass (this will be specifically about Sunday Mass, but some of these ideas will also apply to daily Mass). We’re in the section on preparing yourself before Mass.

What:

The front outside wall of the church (or any building) is called its facade. Take note of its architecture as you approach and enter.

The narthex (the gathering space or vestibule) is the lobby-like section of the church that is at the entrance.

If there is a procession for Mass, it will usually begin here.

Greet other people who are entering the church.

Prepare to enter the nave (where the pews are).

Why:

If well designed, a church facade tells the world outside what type of building this is, how special it is, and what goes on inside. It should lift the passers-by’s hearts and minds to God and invite them to “come and see.” (John 1:39)

The façade acts as a “vessel of meaning” in the most straight forward of ways: it’s the foreword of a book as much as it’s a grand summa – a foreword to the Catholic Liturgy that takes place inside, a prelude to the great truths of the Faith, and a welcoming invitation to the maternal sanctuary, simultaneously, it’s a summary of the Faith in its totality (its catholicity).

Rose, Michael. Ugly As Sin. 44

The main doors of the church tend to be one of the most ornate parts of the facade. This is partly because they are the most functional part (where we enter), but they double as a representation of the gates of Heaven. The person approaching a church is approaching God and having crossed its threshold, has made a definitive shift in the transition from the secular to the sacred.

If only for practical purposes, the portal, made up of the architectural elements surrounding the door, is of greatest importance in the façade. For this is the door to the domus Dei [house of God], to the porta coeli [gate of Heaven]. It’s the means through which our pilgrim reaches the threshold of God’s house. Through the centuries, architects and church artists have responded to the obvious by paying particularly close attention to the design of the elements that surround the openings into the church. These are often elaborately treated with carved ornaments of saints, kings, men, animals, or foliage, depending on the popular symbols and images employed during different ages.

Ibid. 46

In order to emphasize the church as a place of prayer, we section off the main prayer areas (the Nave and Sanctuary) from social places (Narthex, Parish Hall, etc.). This is similar to how the Jewish Temple was laid out. The holiest place is in an inner room. There are different levels as you approach that room.

This is no mere foyer, mudroom, or lobby; it’s primarily the final transitional space from the outside world (the profane and temporal) to the church’s interior (the sacred and eternal). It’s here where our pilgrim will first smell lingering incense and the burning wax of vigil candles. It’s here where he’ll be given a hint of where he’s headed. Thus, it’s a dimly lit place decorated modestly with religious art, perhaps a crucifix hanging on the wall, with a prie-dieu beneath it. It’s the first devotional space of God’s house.

In addition to its primary function as a transitional space, the narthex serves a practical liturgical function: providing a place for space, the processions to assemble. Thus, the narthex is known as the “galilee,” since the procession from narthex to altar symbolizes Christ’s journey from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Crucifixion. It isn’t uncommon to see a wide red carpet beneath the central door to the nave leading down the central aisle up to the altar, a reminder of the symbolic road our Savior walked to redeem the world.

Ibid. 50

Going Deeper:

This time of entering the church is a transition from your ordinary life to a time reserved for the worship of God. As you make that move from the secular to the sacred, allow it to move your mind and heart. Allow yourself to let go of your to-do list for this time. In fact, you are stepping outside of time and into a foretaste of eternity. Perhaps now is a good time to reflect on the following Psalm:

For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Psalm 84:10

In this time of transition, think about how our lives are supposed to be on a similar path from worldliness to holiness. Ask God to help you in that growth and to help you remain open to the graces He wants to give you in this Mass.

While there is usually more time for this after Mass, entering the church can be a time to greet others who are doing the same. Ask God to help you build relationships with other people at your parish, so you can push each other on in greater holiness. 

Another thing you can do at this time is to look for new people, welcome them, and offer to help them if they want to know more about the Mass or the Catholic Church. On any given Sunday, you might have visitors. The Mass can be very intimidating and/or confusing to a newcomer. Offering yourself as a seasoned guide can make their experience much better.

Don’t take too much time, though. You want to enter into the church proper with enough time to pray to prepare yourself for the great act of worship in which you are about to participate. (More on that later.)

What About You?

  • What do you do to transition your mind and heart to prepare for Mass?
  • Do you have any stories of a particularly beautiful church facade that inspired you?
  • Is there anything about the design of a church facade and narthex that helps you make the transition from ordinary life to time set aside for God?

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