From the Rector…
Jesus introduced the material reality of a tension that has existed since creation—a point of connection between the horizontal and vertical axis of this world. That point is the place in which the divine and the earthly intersect. It is the place in which the spiritual and physical collide and absorb into oneness. Where there is no “other”, only unity.
The church attempts to recreate this connection point in many ways, one of which is the actual architecture of the church. Most Episcopal churches are built in a cruciform shape—the shape of the cross. That has less to do with Jesus’ death than it has to do with his life. (Though it is no mistake that Jesus death would be on a cross which is the great symbol of these two axis.) The church’s shape reflects these two axes—horizontal and vertical.
We enter along the vertical axis such that the main doors of the church line up with the altar. In more architecturally pure churches, the font would also lie upon this axis near the entry. That symbolism reflects the passing through the waters of baptism in entering the church and moving toward the altar. The altar is always above the floor of the nave (the main body of the church). You have to physically go up, and it emphasizes that the church is designed to draw your eyes up the altar and toward the heavens. This is, in part, why you will often see architectural features like the reredos and stained glass windows that are above our altar.
The function of the drawing of one’s eyes upward is to help us imagine the vertical plane—the plane that connects the heavens to the earth. It is this plane upon which exists the divine. It is the spiritual plane. In the church it serves to set apart space in our temporal life to remind us of the divine’s presence on the earth. The line itself connects the world to the heavens through the font and altar. It is a place of peace and hope. In medieval days one could approach the altar and ask for sanctuary. It would be granted not because the person deserved it—worth was not a factor—but because the space was considered a holy place, so holy it was not to be defiled.
The horizontal axis lies across the vertical one. It connects the lectern and pulpit. We cross through it as we approach the altar to receive communion—Christ’s body and blood. The horizontal axis is the earthly one. It is where we proclaim the Word, preach on it, pray, and profess our belief. This is where the liturgy of the Word—the first part of our service on Sunday happens. It is in this place that we wrestle with what it means to be a follower of Jesus—how we live and move and have our being.
The vertical and horizontal axis serve to help us remember that though we are in this temporal place, we will someday achieve the heavenly one. How we live in this realm reflects how we will live in the next. If we are so absorbed in the horizontal plane—the plane of material value and success—we may well discover that this does little to help us live into the vertical axis. It is like an EKG machine—if there aren’t some vertical blips on the screen, you will soon flatline.
This earthly plane only leads to death—even when we are walking around on it. It is only when we seek the vertical axis of life that Jesus beckons us too that we find renewed life—a life that transcends the physical and prioritizes the values of the spiritual. Those values are always about relationship—relationship with God and with one another. It is in the spiritual axis that we are drawn in mystery to commune with God. We all come to the table, crossing through the horizontal axis with one another, regardless of how we are different—race, gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, political beliefs, social beliefs, conservative, moderate, or liberal—and so commune not only with God but each other as well.
It is for this reason that our very presence at church is so important. We may no longer be afforded sanctuary by political authorities in the church, but the religious ones understand that it is in this place of divine connection that we can fully embrace the great mystery of the sacrament of Jesus Christ. It is the tension of divine and human, spiritual and material, vertical and horizontal axes that bring us new life.
Light and Life,