by Angie Nasrallah
If you’ve been Orthodox for awhile, you’ve probably stepped into the narthex during an ongoing baptismal service. If you are like our family, as hard as we try, sometimes we are running a wee bit late to church and we tread up to the door thinking that the Divine Liturgy is just beginning. Then, the door is gently opened and boom, everyone is already in the narthex and their eyes shift from baptismal candidate to YOU!
This tardiness happened recently as we were making our way to the baptism of Jack, the infant child of our sweet friends Johnny and Rebekah. Thankfully, more were coming in behind us so we eased into that crowd of parishioners and relatives already observing the service.
Yet, this event got me thinking about the function of the narthex, that outer room so important to our worship in the Orthodox Church.
The narthex is that transition place between the world and the church. It’s the antechamber of the church and the outer room through which you enter into the services. It is in this room that the parishioner prepares for the service by 1. entering in 2. leaving the cares of this world behind and 3. taking on an attitude of prayer and worship. We take on this attitude of prayer and worship by obtaining a candle, donning a cassock, picking up a service book or pulling out a prayer rope. It is in this space that we shed our coats, acquire a commemorative loaf of bread and adjust our tone so that we are reverent and mindful of the presence of Christ in this holy place.
It is helpful when I consider the narthex as a mudroom of sorts. When you enter your home after a long day of play or work, you enter through the mudroom, dropping all your physical outer wear, backpacks, keys and muddy shoes. In the same way, when you enter the church, you come first through the narthex dropping your cultural baggage and worldly cares. Once you’ve shed those things and taken on worshipful effects, you are then ready to enter the nave or main temple of the church.
When we realize how important this trip through the narthex is to our effectual worship and prayer we begin to understand why this room is so critical to the exorcism that happens at the beginning of a baptism.
“Why is the exorcism held in the narthex?” I asked my husband after this recent baptism. I needed a refresher in the tradition and theology behind this practice. He’s studying to become a Deacon, so this information is close.
“The exorcism is held in the narthex because, symbolically, this area represents the transition place between the world and the church. In this place the world and the devil are rejected and the catechumens proclaim that his or her hope is in Christ.”
“So, you wouldn’t ever have an exorcism in the church itself?” I asked.
“The church says to the catechumen, you can enter into the temple of God, into the community of believers and into a life in Christ. But, first you have to push away the world. That happens in the narthex,” he elaborated.
Here I am reminded of the mudroom analogy: We leave the mud of this world and the influences of the devil outside. We see this as the catechumens or sponsors are commanded to face the west, renounce Satan and then physically “breathe and spit upon him.” I often pause at this place in the service; the symbolism is so bold and the actions so tangible!
The Priest: Do you renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride? (asks three times)
The Candidate: I have renounced him.
The Priest: Breathe and spit upon him.
The sponsors spit and breathe toward the west, then turn back to the East facing the priest.
The Priest: Do you unite yourself to Christ? (asks this three times)
The Candidate: I have united myself to Christ
(from the OCA website: https://oca.org/PDF/Music/Baptism/baptism-service.pdf)
So, as I have learned, the narthex is a very important place. Spiritual work is done here. I should be pausing more in this space to make time for a proper transition into God’s house.