Someone was overheard to remark: “When I’m sitting in church I sometimes enjoy just looking around and feeling like I’m in a boat.” What he was probably referring to is the way that traditional church design has us seated in a long narrow row of pews all facing the same direction, like the crew of an ancient sea-faring galley. Or perhaps the church he attends is one of the many whose architecture features a vaulted ceiling with exposed wooden beams that arch overhead like the ribs of a boat hull, so that the effect (with a little imagination) is indeed like sitting underneath an overturned fishing boat of the kind Jesus and the disciples used. What this person probably did not realize, however, was that this similarity is reflected in the word we use for the part of the church where the worshippers sit: the nave. That word is derived from the Latin navis, which means ‘ship’ and is also the root of the words naval, navy, and navigate.
Now it would be fun to report that this boat-like design of the nave reflects an ancient practice of small groups of early Christians huddling together under overturned boats to worship, or something similarly cool, but alas, there’s no evidence for that! Actually, it seems that the earliest Christians just met wherever they could find a suitable space: often that was a home (Acts 12:12) but probably warehouses and the like too. Until Christianity became legalized by the Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, it was problematic to build special buildings for Christian worship. When they did start building churches, they modeled them after conventional Roman architecture featuring arched ceilings, and that further evolved over the centuries. However, it’s not at all improbable that once Christians started building their own church buildings that they consciously or unconsciously retained and elaborated on that boat-like feel since the boat was already a familiar symbol of the Christian Church.
The inset figure is a marking found in the catacombs under Rome where early Christians buried their dead. Like many of the other early Christian symbols, this one carried a coded message: the horizontal beam at the top of the mast formed a cross without making it obvious. There are also many other reasons why the boat symbol was (and remains) a vibrant symbol for Christians. First of all, so many of the most memorable events of the Gospels took place in small boats on the Sea of Galilee (e.g., Jesus stilling the storm and the miraculous catches of fish). Later, the missionary journeys of Paul involved perilous sea voyages and ship wrecks (Acts 27). But the symbolism is even much more ancient than that, going back to the ark where God saved the family of Noah from drowning in the flood, which in turn foreshadowed our own rescue in the waters of Baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
For ancient people, depths of water represented a terrifying hazard, and the boat a place of refuge. So it’s not at all surprising that the boat was chosen as an apt way to represent the Church where the faithful gathered to journey together across the treacherous seas of unbelief and worldliness and huddle together during the storms of persecution and challenge. And that really hasn’t changed, has it?
When we gather together in the nave of our church to worship we are both symbolically and literally seeking the refuge of the ‘boat’ which is the Church of Jesus Christ. We are acknowledging our own helplessness to navigate the perils of “the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh” and we rely totally on Jesus to bring us safely to our heavenly home. Our little vessel is, of course, just one of the vast number which comprise God’s great armada of His Church, and we take courage in being surrounded by the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who have completed the perilous journey safely before us. So as you sit in the nave this week, take a moment to think about the symbolism of the ‘boat’ in which we are sailing together.