Why signs and images?
Catholic Church, whether old or new, will always be a building rich in signs and symbolism, and likely to contain objects and images not readily understandable to all visitors. However, we know that through our senses we engage with the world and grow in knowledge and so we depend on sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. The Catholic Church makes use of all five senses to help us grow in knowledge of God and our faith, by way of ‘sacramentals’ – these are symbols and images designed to help us in our relationship with God, and not simply ‘decoration’.
The sanctuary is the most important area in the church, within which the priest celebrates the Mass and leads the services. It will usually be raised up a little, or in some other way separated from the rest of the building, while clearly still a part of it.
This is the most important object in the building – the living heart of a Catholic Church. The tabernacle is a shrine, usually made of
precious metal and often veiled with a coloured cloth. It most often stands in the sanctuary, or perhaps in a small chapel of its own, set aside for private prayer. The tabernacle contains the Blessed Sacrament, the bread consecrated by the priest at Mass which is transformed into the Body of Christ. It is reserved in the tabernacle so that Holy Communion can be taken to the sick, but also so that people can pray in the presence of Jesus, who we believe remains there, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread. Near the tabernacle you will always see a lamp burning – symbolizing the living presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
The altar will always be the most prominent object within the sanctuary, the holy table on which the sacrifice of the Mass is offered.
Traditionally, an altar which has been consecrated (specially blessed by the bishop) is made of stone and contains relics of the saints – a practice which goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Because the body and blood of Christ will rest here during Mass, the altar is treated with particular reverence: it is covered with a white cloth, and candles are placed on or near it. The priest will kiss it at the beginning and end of Mass, and it may be honoured with incense.
The Ambo or Lectern
0ften placed within or close to the sanctuary, from here the Word of God (scripture) is proclaimed during the Mass and other liturgies. If the altar is the `first table’, the ambo is a ‘second table’, of the word. Homilies, sermons and prayers are often given from the Ambo, which is usually made of wood or stone, and can be elegantly decorated or covered, and treated with reverence.
The font is the place where infants (and occasionally adults) receive baptism. It can be located in a separate part of the church (called a baptistery), or may be found in or near the sanctuary.
Often near the Font, this very large decorated candle is placed on a high stand: a new paschal candle is blessed each year at the Easter Vigil, and is lit throughout the Easter season and afterwards for every baptism and funeral – a powerful symbol of Jesus Christ, Light of the World and our hope of eternal life.
Near the font there may also be an aumbry, a special cupboard containing the holy oils used for baptisms, confirmations and anointing the sick.
This is another reminder of baptism which is found in stoups, or bowls, near the doors of a Catholic Church – on entering we make the sign of the cross with the holy water, which has been blessed by the priest, and can also be taken away for use in people’s private devotion at home.
Crucifix or Cross
Another important image in the church is the crucifix which hangs somewhere near the altar: the image of Jesus on the cross reminds us of his supreme, loving sacrifice which is represented for us at every celebration of the Mass.
The Sacred Heart
A familiar image of Jesus which will be found in almost every Catholic Church is the Sacred Heart, showing Jesus displaying his wounded heart – another reminder of his wonderful love. Devotion to the heart of Jesus is very old, but is especially associated with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who lived in the seventeenth century.
Stations of the Cross
These fourteen pictures, or carvings, which can be elaborate or very simple, depict the final journey of Jesus to Calvary, from his judgement by Pilate to his burial in the tomb. Usually set on the walls, Catholics use this set of images in their private prayers or sometimes – especially during Lent – at a public service.
Images of the Mother of Jesus
Catholics venerate Mary as Mother of God, and in a special way as the spiritual mother of all Christians. In honouring Mary we honour her Son, and we believe that she will always pray for his disciples. Catholics worship God alone, but we honour Mary as a person uniquely close to Jesus Christ. Thus we can be sure of finding in any Catholic church a statue, or at least a picture, of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Our Lady) often depicted holding the infant Jesus.
Images of the Saints
Usually churches will contain images of certain other saints. Catholics believe that the thousands of Catholic saints are our friends, and seeing their image inspires us to be like them. The choice for a particular church will depend on its history, location and dedication, and other special circumstances. A saint very often depicted is St. Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus: either holding the Christ Child, or sometimes with a carpenter’s tools. Others are St. Anthony, St. Patrick, St. Jude and St. Therese of Lisieux.
Vestments and Colours
During Mass the priest wears special vestments. These derive from the clothing commonly worn by people during the first centuries of Christianity. Secular fashion changed, but the Church kept to the old style. Thus it was that clothing once common to all, became the distinctive dress of the clergy. The colour of these vestments, and very often the veil of the tabernacle and other hangings will vary according to the season of the Church’s year
- Purple, a colour of penance and expectation, is worn during Advent and Lent. It is also appropriately worn at funerals, when we pray for the deceased on their final journey to God.
- White, a joyful colour, is worn at Christmas and Easter, and for feasts of Our Lady and many saints.
- Red, colour of fire and blood, is worn on feasts of the Holy Spirit and in commemorating the suffering of Jesus and his martyrs.
- Green, symbolic of life and growth, is worn on the Sundays in Ordinary Time.
- Rose-coloured vestments may be worn to mark the middle Sundays of Advent and Lent.
- Black, the colour of mourning, remains an option at funerals and for All Souls Day (2nd November), though not so common now.
- • Gold and silver vestments may be worn on very important feasts, such as Easter and Christmas.
At Mass, there will be a further use of symbols: the use of candles, incense and bodily gestures (kneeling, bowing, genuflecting etc) involve all the senses in our act of worship and reverence. If you are becoming a Catholic, or discovering these things for the first time, they can seem confusing. Time taken to learn about them, will help you to appreciate them more as an appropriate response to the unfathomable riches of our Christian faith.