Rev. Michael Keith
The Church uses weird words.
The first time I heard someone say the word narthex I had no idea what they were talking about. “Please sign the guest register in the narthex” I was told. I stared dazed and confused at the person making the announcement after Service. What’s a narthex? It sounds scary. Why would I want to go there? The Church uses weird words. However, they remain simply weird words if we don’t seek to understand what they mean. Once we understand what they mean, they’re awesome. I am going to use the word narthex a lot in this short article because it’s awesome.
Sure, we could just call it a vestibule or a foyer or a lobby but that’s lame. It’s a narthex. It is a narthex because it is there to do narthex-y kind of things to you.
What are these narthex-y kind of things a narthex does? What is the function of the narthex in a church building? It is the transition place from profane space to sacred space. It is the transition from the common to the holy. The sanctuary of a church has been set apart for God’s use. It has been set apart so that God can go about giving out His gifts to His people through Word and Sacrament. It is a holy place, a place set apart for use by God. It is the place where Jesus washes you in Holy Baptism, it is the place where Jesus absolves you of your sin, it is the place where Jesus speaks in His holy Word read and preached, it is the place where Jesus feeds you His Body and Blood. It is the place where Jesus is with His gifts of forgiveness and life for you.
The narthex provides a place of transition for you as you enter the church building. You are leaving the common, you are leaving the day to day everyday, and are entering into a unique place that has been set apart. It is holy because it is the place where God is present in His Word and Sacraments. Yes, God is present everywhere but He is not present everywhere with His gifts. Wherever God’s people gather together to receive His gifts is a holy place, a place set apart for God’s use.
The narthex gives you a chance to recognize this transition. The narthex is neither common nor holy; it is in between. Think about how you might act in the parking lot of the church. You might shout across the parking lot to greet a friend. There is nothing wrong with that in the parking lot. Shout away. Then, as you enter into the church building you might act a little differently. As you stand in the narthex you may find yourself having casual conversations with the people around you but you won’t likely shout at the top of your lungs at someone across the room. Then you move into the pew. You are in the sanctuary now (technically the nave but that is another weird word that we should talk about another time), you are in the holy place. Your behavior will reflect this. You will act differently in the pew than you will in the narthex because you recognize you have come into a special place. Then you come forward to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. Your behavior before the altar will even be different than it is in the pew because you recognize the holy: the presence of Jesus and His gifts in that place. You may reverence the altar, kneel, bow your head, etc.
The narthex narthexes you by making you aware of this transition from the common to the holy. A foyer or lobby is just a place for sitting a waiting. Lame. A narthex is a place that makes you aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. You are entering the holy. You are going to be in the presence of Jesus and to receive His gifts.
Next time you go to church let the narthex narthex you. Be thoughtful and aware of what you are doing. You are leaving the common and entering the holy. You are going to receive the gifts of Jesus. And, in a short time, you will leave the holy place and you will walk into the narthex after having been gifted by Jesus through His Word and Sacraments. You leave a beloved, baptized, forgiven, child of God for the sake of Jesus. You then transition again and enter into the world forgiven and strengthened by Jesus to go to your God given vocations. The narthex narthexes you in this as well.
And if you see someone walking around your church building dazed and confused looking to sign a guest book – show them where the narthex is.
Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, AB Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.