During a meeting the other night at church, some of us were told to go assemble in the narthex.
Narthex? I spun around slowly. I knew where the sanctuary was, and the library and the Sunday school wing and the coffee area, but narthex? I vaguely knew it to be a churchy word, but that was about it.
A fellow member, seeing the question marks above my head, stepped in to explain what, or where, it was.
“Is it near the apse?” I asked eagerly, although I knew just as little about apse as I did narthex.
She explained what a narthex is, after which I followed the crowd, just in case.
We held our meeting – right there in the narthex, apparently – and no one got lost.
A few days later, I double-checked “narthex” in the dictionary. I found that in early Christian churches, it was “a porch or portico at the west end for penitents and others not admitted to the church itself.”
That was close, but not quite right at my church, because so far they’ve been pretty decent about letting me indoors, not hanging out on a porch.
But wait, there’s more. A second meaning, Webster’s said, is “any church vestibule leading to the nave.”
All right, then. That explains everything.
From “narthex,” my fingers had to walk only a couple of pages before they encountered “nave.” That is, I learned, the “part of the church that is between the side aisles and extends from the chancel to the principal entrance, forming the main part of the building.”
I guess you know where we’re headed now: many pages backward until we encounter “chancel.”
“The part of a church around the altar, usually at the east end, reserved for the use of the clergy and the choir,” the dictionary said. “It is sometimes set off by a railing or screen.”
I noticed that the word “chancel,” fittingly, means a lattice, describing that screen.
“Nave,” it seems, comes from that area’s supposed shape, which is a ship. (Ship, naval, nave – it all makes sense.)
“Apse” is derived from a Latin word meaning an arch or vault, but before that it dealt with the elliptical orbit of a planet or the moon. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other.
The origin of “narthex” is the most unusual. It is Greek for the giant fennel plant because that section of a church was thought to resemble the hollow stem of the herb, which tastes sweet and is used to flavor foods.
I couldn’t close the dictionary without looking up a few more words, some obscure and some common. One that we’ve all known our entire lives is “pew.”
Even though we sit on pews, though, the word comes from the root that gave us “podium” because it originally meant foot; specifically, the foot of a vase.
It turns out that Sunday is a good day for learning all sorts of things.