SYMBOLS OF OUR CHRISTIAN FAITH
by Rev. Thom Bower, Ed.D, Associate Minister for Leadership and Pastoral Support
Symbols Tell the Story of Our Faith. All religious traditions are rich in symbolism. Symbols express that for which words are inadequate. Understanding Christian symbols enriches our worship life and broadens our religious expression. This page is meant to aid you in both by better understanding the symbols that are part of the building of Northfield Community Church. It is our hope that you will see through the objects to their deeper meanings and be guided to contemplate our Christian faith. Understanding the symbols will also help you in conveying to others some of the messages and meanings of our faith.
The designers of our sanctuary chose walnut paneling and high brick walls to create a worship space of dignity and awe. Walnut is one of the hardest woods in the northern hemisphere. In European Christianity, walnut has long been associated with perseverance and durability, and thus is associated with wisdom.
The Chancel (at the front of the sanctuary) was intended to be simple in order to focus attention on the act of worship. The Chancel furnishings are set in a familiar Protestant pattern. The Communion Table is central, over which hangs a cross, centered in the Chancel. The Pulpit and the Lectern are on either side of the Chancel with the Baptism Font being at the front of the area where the congregation sits (the Nave).
Faceted glass windows add to the beauty. Rather than using pictures to retell stories of faith, the abstract designs are meant to emphasize the qualities of living light as it shines through the glass; come some afternoon for a colorful gift from God when the southwesterly sun projects many hues throughout the sanctuary.
The Communion Table
In Communion, we remember Jesus gathering with the disciples, we gather as disciples in the present, and we look forward to gathering with all Christ’s disciples in the fullness of time. The table is a symbol of gathering as God's people. In the marble base of our table are inscribed the Greek letters, Alpha and Omega, the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. This pairing was meant to cover everything in creation, the way we say “everything from A to Z”. In Christian usage they represent Christ as the beginning and end of all things. Typically our table has two other symbols resting upon it - the open Bible and the Communion Chalice. The open Bible represents our ongoing ommitment to read scripture as one way God communicates with us. The Communion Chalice represents the "Cup of the New Covenant." It should remind us that our salvation comes as a gift from God which is symbolized in the Communion Service.
The cross is the most common symbol used in our Christian churches. An empty cross, like ours, is meant to convey the message that Christ is resurrected and lives today. (A crucifix, depicting Christ hanging on the cross, is intended to remind us of the suffering (passion) that Christ accepted as an expression of love.) The letters "IHS" on the cross has been interpreted many ways. The most reliable come from ancient languages: the Greek Iasous Houis Sotar (Iasous Houis Sotar) (translated as “Jesus Son Savior”) or the Latin in hac salus (translated as “in this cross is salvation”) or the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator ("Jesus, Savior of humanity").
The Baptismal Font
In the sacrament of baptism we are joined to and made a part of the living body of Christ. We are reminded of the grace we have received and our call to live renewed by Christ. Our baptismal font is carved from Florentine marble. Its shape resembles a large chalice, reminding us that communion and baptism are interrelated.
The Pulpit and Lectern
At the edges of the chancel are Pulpit and Lectern. The larger piece of furniture is called the pulpit, used for preaching –– explaining and applying the Word of God. The Protestant tradition has emphasized the importance of the scripture as the Word of God and preaching which interprets God’s call to us now; as such, preaching is also a moment of God’s word among us. The pulpit, on the northern side of the chancel (right when you are facing the front) is designed to express the importance of the preached word of God but the pulpit is not the only place from which we expect to hear God’s word in our worship. The smaller piece of furniture is always referred to as the lectern, to be used primarily for the reading of the Bible and the leading of worship. The Lectern, smaller in size, is designed to match the Pulpit. The openness of our Chancel allows us to lead our worship many ways, so you may see our worship leaders guiding from many other places. Candles, flowers, and other items are typically placed in the background so as to not detract from the major symbols of the church. Flowers bring the beauty of God’s natural creation into our worship space. Before electricity, candles were a source of light to read the scriptures; two candles reduced shadows making reading easier. In our lifetimes, with dependable electrical light, this need has diminished. Candles recall many biblical passages alluding to God’s light, including Christ as the light of the world. The candles have come to symbolize God’’s light in the world as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes candles and other objects appear in numbered sets, which can mean many things:
2: the two testaments; the two natures of Christ (human and divine).
3: the Trinity (God as Creator, Christ, and Spirit).
4: the four seasons, and thus time; four elements (earth, wind, fire, water) and thus all of creation; the four corners of the earth, and thus humanity in its variety.
7: as the number of days of creation, seven is seen as a number of completion or totality, a suggestion of perfection when all is good; there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord; see Isaiah 11:2-3).
8: completion + 1: renewal, regeneration, new life, new beginnings.
Raised above the rear of our sanctuary is the choir loft and organ. Placing the choir here is intended to allow the musicians to offer their ministry during the service, without taking away from the visual elements of the worship center. Elevating the choir allows the music to wash over the congregants. There are occasions when our choir’s musicianship is better delivered at the front of our sanctuary. The NCC pipe organ was custom built in 1973 by the Schlicker Organ Company, of Buffalo, New York. As you look at the organ you can see three sections. The middle section has the pipes for the lowest keyboard, called the Great. To the south are the pipes for the Swell, so called because it has shutters, like Venetian blinds, that open or close permitting expression of sound. To the north are the pipes for the pedals played by the feet. The display pipes in the front of the swell and pedal sections are arranged that way for visual effect. The pipes of each section are standing on three big rectangular boxes called chests, weighing 500 pounds each.