Why are churches built they way they are?
There is a method to the general structure and positioning of most liturgical churches. Despite various architectural styles, most have spires, towers, or domes. These create what in Latin is referred to as an axis mundi, or center point between earth and heaven. As seen in Jacob's ladder (Gen 28:10-22), this is a place where heaven meets earth.
Church architecture reflects this idea, as the building is set apart to be a place to encounter God in worship. A spire, steeple, and dome marks this point, while the tower symbolizes the strength or refuge we find in the Lord, as the psalmist writes in Psalms 9, 18, 61, 144.
The general positioning of a church is quite strategic as well. Churches are traditionally oriented eastward with the altar facing the rising sun. In early Christianity the sun symbolized the 'light of Christ', and a reminder of the hope we have through Jesus in life everlasting.
As such, facing this direction serves as a constant reminder of the hope we possess as well as the return we await in our Lord (Matt. 24: 27). If you notice, in our church, the place where the priest stands still faces this direction.
The overall structure of a church and its worship mirrors our journey with Christ. In the back stands the font, wherein all pass in the beginning of their Christian journey. The congregation sits in the nave, a name taken from the Latin navis, meaning ship.
For it was seen that the church was the ark of salvation, or vessel that carries us safely through the storms of this life to our eternal home.
And the congregation faces the sanctuary, which is elevated with the altar at the center and cross behind. The reminder of our salvation is always before us, both literally in church and symbolically in our lives. And the focus is likewise upon the altar, the sacrifice, and the place where we receive strength to carry on weekly through the Eucharist.
The church is full of symbolism, as is our liturgy, and our worship. Look for more of 'why we do what we do' in the weeks to come!