The pulpit, the baptismal font, and the altar are the three major pieces of furniture in God’s house. The pulpit is the place from which the Word of God is proclaimed. It reminds us that the church has been given the responsibility and authority to proclaim God’s word.
From the pulpit we hear both the Law and the Gospel. In the preaching of the Law we hear about our sins, our need to repent, and our need for a savior. The Gospel is the good news that by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Saint Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified.”
The baptismal font is the container that holds the water for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Through baptism we become part of the body of Christ. Locating the font at the entrance to the nave reminds us that we entered the body of Christ through God’s gracious gift of Holy Baptism.
One traditional shape of the font is octagonal, eight sided. Christ rose on the first day of the week which has also been called the eighth day. The number eight is considered a symbol of new birth from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Gal. 3:27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
The altar is a symbol of God’s gracious presence with His people. It is the place for the preparation and distribution of the Lord’s Supper. Also, it is the place we bring our prayers and offerings of praise and thanksgiving.
The term altar comes from the Latin word alta, which means high. It is often raised a step within the chancel area. The top of the altar is called the mensa, which means table. Sanctuary is the word used to describe the area around the altar, not the whole church building.
The altar reminds us that the sacrifice of Christ is central to God’s plan of salvation for us.
In addition to the furniture we have in God’s house, we use additional furnishings to both honor God and help us remember what He has done for us. Furnishings include items such as crosses, candles, linens, paraments and banners.
The cross is a reminder to us of Jesus’ death on a cross as a sacrifice for our sins. This is especially true where the body (corpus) of Jesus is attached to the cross. An empty cross reminds us of the resurrection and the victory Jesus won for us. Usually one central cross is placed near the altar area.
The symbol of the cross has taken many variant forms. A few of these include the Latin Cross, the Celtic Cross, the Greek Cross, the Jerusalem Cross, the Maltese Cross and the Tau Cross.
Candles are among the oldest furnishings in the church. Before modern times candles provided light for reading, but today their symbolic meaning is predominant.
Fire has long been a symbol of God’s presence. The light of the candles remind us that ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ Ps. 27:1 and that His word is a ‘light for my path’ Ps. 119:105.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” John 8:12 and “You are the light of the world” Matthew 5:14. The candles remind us that Jesus is the source of light in our lives and we are to give that light to the world through our witness of Him.
There are a number of different candles that are used in the church. Candles on or near the altar are used all year long to remind us that the Lord is our light.
Advent candles represent our waiting for the coming of Jesus. A paschal (Easter) candle reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection and visible presence on earth until His ascension. The paschal candle may also be used at baptisms to remind us that in our baptism we are buried and raised with Christ.
A sanctuary lamp is used to symbolize God’s living presence among His people. This lamp burns continuously throughout the year.
The word linens refers to the various cloths used on the altar and during the administration of the sacraments. The fair linen is the cloth covering the altar. It reminds us of the linen used to wrap Jesus’ body in the tomb. There are five crosses on the fair linen which represent the five places Jesus’ body was pierced.
A smaller square linen called the corporal is laid on the center of the altar. This linen represents the cloth that was wrapped around the face of Jesus when he was laid in the tomb. The communion vessels are placed on this linen.
Small linens called purificators are used as napkins to cleanse the rim of the chalice during the distribution of the Lord’s Supper. A white post-communion veil is used to cover all the communion vessels after the distribution.
A credence linen is also used to cover the credence shelf. The credence shelf is the small shelf near the altar where the individual cups are kept. Also the offering plates are kept there.
Baptismal napkins and towels are used to dry persons after baptism.
Paraments are the cloths which hang at the front of the altar and pulpit. The paraments are in the appointed color of the day or season of the church year. They help to make the altar and pulpit the visual focuses of the worship space. Paraments have been used since the fifth century.
The different colors of the paraments help to focus our thoughts on the theme of the day or season. White – Godhead, purity, joy, light; Red – Holy Spirit, blood, fire; Green – life, growth; Blue – hope, anticipation; Purple – mourning, repentance; Black – death.
In the Lutheran churches of Europe banners are often carried in processions. Churches, Sunday Schools, societies, guilds and brotherhoods have banners bearing symbols of our Christian faith. American Lutheran churches do not often use banners in processions but rather have them hanging in the church.
Like paraments they can be used to remind us of a special day or season of the church year. Through the use of symbols or text on the banner we can be reminded of God’s gifts to us such as the sacraments and His word. Also we can be reminded of aspects of our Christian life like mission work or stewardship.
Flowers have long been used to adorn the worship space. Flowers are a part of the beauty and frailty of creation. Flowers are a symbol of our joy in Christ as well as our human frailty. This verse from Isaiah captures the symbolism of flowers, ‘All people are grass, and their constancy is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade.’ Isaiah 40:6-7
Normally fresh cut flowers are used because they best symbolize that without Christ we will wither and die. Potted plants (some times appropriate) or artificial flowers do not give this same symbolism. Flowers are usually not appropriate during penitential seasons like Advent, Lent, and Holy Week. The display of flowers should never obscure the central furniture: altar and pulpit.
Vessels and Elements
Vessels used for celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion, The Eucharist) are usually made of some type of metal such as silver or gold or pewter. Glass or earthenware are sometimes used. A minimum set of vessels includes a chalice, a flagon or cruet, and a paten.
The chalice is the large cup used for distribution of the wine. Individual glasses are also used to distribute the wine. A cruet is used to hold the wine before distribution. The paten is the plate used for the sacramental bread. Sacramental bread is usually unleavened bread made without yeast. This is most likely what Jesus used because He gave this new meal right after the Passover meal. Sometimes rather than wafers a whole loaf of bread is used as a symbol of our unity in Christ. 1 Cor. 10:16-17
The presiding minister usually distributes the bread so he knows who is communing. It is his responsibility to know who has learned the meaning of the supper and how to examine oneself as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 11