[Preface: this was written upon request and included in a little booklet prepared by our church (with multiple authors and photographers) to give to guests.]
As with everything else in our church, the narthex exists to point everyone toward Jesus Christ and His ultimate ministry to His people from the heavenly altar (as described in Hebrews and Revelation among other passages). In our congregation, as with all other traditional Christian congregations throughout history, this worship is focused on our own altar at the eastern end of the church. The narthex is the first indoor space that is entered from outside the church building, and it serves as a place of entry, welcome, and preparation. The worshiping life of the whole parish community as one body starts in this space, and services often extend into it. For example, in many services the deacon comes out from the altar and delivers incense throughout the nave and into the narthex. For some services, such as crismations and baptisms, the priest and all participants start within the narthex before proceeding into the nave and finishing in front of the iconostasis and the altar. For every service, worshipers all enter the narthex first and are invited to prepare themselves for prayer and worship.
To help with these preparations, there are three main icons* in the narthex as well as a table with prayer candles to purchase and two sandboxes for lighting prayer candles. For some festal seasons, there is also a smaller icon for the feast on a separate stand beside the table with candles. On Sunday mornings, the table with prayer candles also has bulletins containing announcements and the hymns for the day. The table with candles is located to the right as you enter. Two varieties of prayer candles are offered: simple tapers to place in one of the sandboxes within the narthex and week-long red votive candles that are typically lighted in the narthex and carried into the nave to place before specific icons there.**
The three main icons in the narthex are:
- An icon of Jesus Christ (to the right of the main doors leading into the sanctuary and paralleled with the icon of Christ to the right of the main doors on the iconostasis before the altar). In this icon, Jesus is shown blessing and teaching us from His throne in heaven (in image known as Christ Pantocrator).
- An icon of our church’s patron, Saint John Chrysostom is immediately to the left of the doors leading into the nave). Saint John Chrysostom was a faithful and courageous leader and teacher of the church in Constantinople, and he is the beloved saint for whom our church is named.
- A specific and beloved icon made from a large embroidered cloth and bearing an image of the dead body of Christ as He is being mourned and prepared for burial. This is called the epitaphios and hangs on a north wall of the narthex with a sandbox for prayer candles before it. Epitaphios is Greek and comes from the words “epí” meaning “on” or “upon” and the word “táphos” meaning “grave” or “tomb.” This icon is an important and intimate part of the liturgical services of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, marking the death and resurrection of Christ. After these services, it is placed on the altar table and remains there throughout the Paschal season. During the rest of the church year, it is available for veneration and prayer within the narthex.
* If you wish to learn more about the Christian use of icons for prayer and veneration, more information is available in our church library and bookstore as well as in classes for inquirers.
** Lighting lamps and candles as a part of prayer is an ancient practice of God’s people, with many examples in the Old and New Testaments (including within the heavenly temple described by the Apostle John in his Revelation). Lighting candles with prayer imitates and responds to God who often reveals Himself through light (in creation and in the transfiguration for example). As the candle is lit and placed in a sandbox before the icon, a private and quiet prayer is typically said.
Examples of Christian painting in Church environments seem to stretch back to the 2nd century, and those are probably not the earliest examples. The first historical example of what is clearly an icon, however, with a candle before it lit, is that of St. Peter in Rome. I believe that’s 6th or 7th century. The _Liber Pontificalis_ is, I believe, where that is found. FYI, FWIW.