From the smell of incense to the taste of the Eucharist, worship can engage all the senses.
Objects used during services or fixtures of the church’s design can also be loaded with meaning.
While the symbolic meaning of some objects — such as the cross or the star of David — is readily apparent, other objects, such as the bishop’s chair in a Catholic cathedral or the eternal flame in the sanctuary of a Jewish temple, are more obscure.
Here is a look at the meanings behind some less familiar symbols at several Billings houses of worship.
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Fiberglass oxen supporting the marbled baptismal font at the LDS Temple in Billings represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the strength upon which God’s work rests. In the Mormon religion, the obedient and faithful make up the covenant family chosen to accomplish God’s purposes. God’s work rests on them, in the same way the temple font rests on the oxen. Temples in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not just large churches. They are considered the most sacred place on Earth. Living Mormons are baptized in Mormon churches, which are called stake houses. Only the ancestors of Mormons in good standing are baptized in the temple. Church members stand in for their deceased ancestors.
The orthodox cross has three bars across it, with a slanted bottom bar. Some interpret the slanted bar as representing Christ’s agony, which was so great that he wrenched the bar. “Usually, when orthodox show the body of Christ on the cross, he’s already dead. He’s at peace,” said Father John Mancantelli, at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
The 12 Apostles are shown in the gothic-style stained-glass window over the balcony at St. Patrick’s. Some of the Apostles carry weapons, including a sword, battle axe and club. Those weapons symbolize how, according to church tradition, those Apostles died. St. Peter, at the top of the stained-glass window, carries the key to the kingdom.
The sanctuary lamp in a Jewish temple, which is never extinguished, is called the “ner tamid,” or “eternal flame.” The ner tamid hangs over or near the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept and where God’s presence is said to dwell. In the Torah, Exodus 27:20-21, God commands that a lamp in the Tabernacle should always be lighted. The ner tamid is also seen as a symbol of God’s constant presence.
The baptismal font at St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral sits symbolically near the entryway because baptism is the sacrament through which Catholics enter the church, said Father Robert Grosch. A bronze bowl is suspended over the font’s granite and travertine pool.
A 30-foot stained-glass cross on American Lutheran Church’s exterior is built into the brick. A hand upraised over the Bible occupies the center. Three fingers point upward, representing the Trinity. Two fingers folded together symbolize the incarnation. The whole hand represents the hand of God blessing you, said Pastor Tim Tostengard
The word “cathedral” comes from “cathedra,” or chair of the bishop, a sign of the bishop’s authority and pastoral leadership. A cathedral is the church where the bishop’s chair resides. The chair sits to the left of the altar, while the presider’s chair, for the priest who leads the assembly in prayer, sits to the right. St. Patrick’s was designated a co-cathedral after the name of the diocese was changed in 1980 to the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings.
The seraphim fans, intricate, lace-like metalwork on poles, flank the cross on the altar at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The fans are taken from the Book of Exodus, which describes fans over the altar. Behind the seraphim fans and flanking the icon of the Virgin Mary are processional icons, taken out when the congregation moves in a procession outside the church. In the center of the altar is the tabernacle, the ornamental receptacle in which the consecrated Eucharist for shut-ins and hospitalized individuals is kept.
Baptist denominations are almost the antithesis of ritualistic or symbolic worship and lack the kinds of icons or symbols held in reverence by others, said the Rev. Paul Jones, lead pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church. “We focus on God’s Word,” Jones said. “The worship service all leads to that point where we, as a congregation, open our Bibles and together endeavor to hear a word from the Lord.”
The simplicity of the church’s interior reflects those beliefs. The pulpits at Emmanuel Baptist are graced with a very simple cross, which is symbolically made from Amazon blood wood.
A 30-foot stained-glass cross on American Lutheran Church’s exterior is built into the brick. A hand upraised over the Bible occupies the center. Three fingers point upward, representing the Trinity. Two fingers folded together symbolize the incarnation. The whole hand represents the hand of God blessing you, said Pastor Tim Tostengard.
The iconostas, an intricate wooden panel holding icons, or holy images, separates the sanctuary, the most sacred part of the church, from the nave, where congregants sit. The division offers a reminder that people often find themselves “separated” from God through sin, said Father John Mancantelli at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The wall also guards the Holy Communion, which is considered the body and blood of Christ. The center gates are called the Royal Door, and a curtain conceals the altar between services.