Traditional church architecture divides the church into three primary spaces: the narthex, the nave, and the altar.
When you first enter the church through the western doors, you find yourself in the narthex. This is a liminal space – a space between spaces – a space between the world and the church.
It is there that we first come from the world into the church. It is there that we are exorcized and enrolled in the catechumenate prior to baptism. It is there that we reject Satan and spit upon him while facing west out of the doors and into the world. And then, still in the narthex, we turn to face East – toward the Church, toward the holy of holies, toward the Lord, and there we profess the true faith.
It is also there that a man and a woman (one of each) are betrothed. There they begin a new way of life together, and leave behind an old way as they prepare to be joined together as one in Christ in the holy mystery of love.
In ancient times, it was also there that the order of penitents would stand, kneel, prostrate, and do penance for their sin – not daring to enter the church further than the narthex until such time as they were reconciled with the church.
So, the narthex is a place of transition – a place of change – a place of putting off the old man and putting on the new – a place of entrance into new life in Christ (Eph. 4:22-24).
Then, passing through the narthex, we enter the nave – which is where we are all now gathered together. This space represents the church itself. Symbolically, this is where we do the living of the Christian life.
It is here that we receive most of the holy mysteries. Here we are baptized and chrismated and receive holy communion. Here we confess our sins to Jesus Christ before his icon and are forgiven by him and reconciled to his Church. Here, those who are ill often come before the presbyters of the church who lay hands on them and anoint them for the healing of their souls and bodies (James 5:14-15). Here, we are crowned in marriage. Here are monks and nuns tonsured. Here, we carry out the funeral rites. Here we’re hatched, matched, and dispatched, as they say.
Then, if we continue to move east, we come before the holy doors. And through them is the holy place, the holy altar, the holy of holies, which represents and re-presents heaven itself for us – the dwelling place of God, from whence he pours out his grace upon us.
So, we have in the church building – the house of the church – the temple – an icon of the whole cosmos – the whole created order – everything and everyone and every place and every time. We have where we were, where we are, and where we’re going. The world, the church, and paradise. The past, the present, and the future.
Let’s return and focus for a moment on where we are in the present – in this life we are now living. We are now in the nave. This word is rather interesting. It has the same Latin root as the word Navy. And it means a ship or a boat. So we’re all together in a boat. We’re all in the same boat. Sometimes they call it an ark – the Ark of Salvation.
When all the world perished in the flood, Noah and his family and a remnant of every species were saved in the ark. So, the ark floating in water becomes an image of the Church in the midst of the world. Because the Lord saves us through his Church from the ways of sin and death on offer by the world just as he saved Noah and his family from the flood by the ark. The Church is our lifeline to God to which we must tightly cling if we are to be pulled up out of the flood of distractions and evil thoughts with which the devil and the world constantly inundate us.
But really the nave of the church is better than the ark of Noah, even though the latter is a type of the former. The captain of our ship is Jesus Christ – the Son of God, whose Father so loved the world that he sent him to save the world. Remembering the ark and also the saving mission of Jesus Christ, listen to the Gospel (Luke 5:1-11):
Jesus gets into a boat, which is Simon’s, and asks him to pull out a little from the land. He sits down and teaches the people from the boat. Then he says to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Reluctantly, they do so – and they catch so many fish that their nets are breaking and they fill two boats so full of fish that they almost begin to sink.
Do you see the differences between this image and the image of Noah’s Ark? Noah and his family are shut up in the ark. Everything and everyone outside of it is left outside it to perish. But when Jesus gets into the boat he tells those with him in the boat to let down their nets for a catch – to bring those who are outside the boat into the boat – to bring so many of them in that the boat begins to sink – that the floorboards of the boat are creaking under the weight and threatening to give way – that the water of the world is so close to the edge of the boat that it’s beginning to slosh in.
This miracle of the great catch wasn’t just about feeding the hungry with a good catch of fish. Jesus tells Simon the meaning of the sign. He says, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”
Now consider that, when we gather together as the church, we gather in the nave. We’re all together in a boat. We are the fish that have been caught and brought in. And if you find that you’re gasping like a fish out of water don’t worry – do not be afraid – we all do that. But it turns out that this boat is not like other boats and these fishermen are not like other fishermen and – in this boat – we do not remain mere fish. In the waters of the world, we may have thought we were at home like a fish in water, but it turns out that this boat is actually our passage to another life – a better life – a perfect life in Christ.
When we were in the waters of the world, we had no lungs to breathe air and so we feared the air. But the one who made all the fish and every sea creature on the fifth day also gave the breath of life to every beast of the earth and to man on the sixth day. He can give us lungs to breathe in this new world. And he does so through the holy mystery of his Church.
Once we have breathed deeply the Spirit-filled breath of Life and we have grown in strength and wisdom, the Lord Jesus will turn to many of us – perhaps to you and to me and say, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch and I will now make you fishers of men.” Let us heed this call, and bring so many into the church with us that it looks as though we might sink.
If we don’t know how, remember that the Lord will show us how. Really, it is his work through us, never our own work alone. Simon did not fill his nets with fish – Jesus did. But Simon obeyed Jesus’ command to let down his nets – even though he was skeptical. Jesus shows us the way, if we study his gospel, and live in his holy mysteries. The Lord will keep us afloat.