The Tabernacle: A church within a church

Our church buildings, and the Holy Mass itself, are filled with signs and symbols of great meaning and value.  They gather up the goods of creation and “through the work of human hands” they show back to us important truths of the faith.

“A sacramental celebration is woven from signs and symbols.  In keeping with the divine pedagogy of salvation their meaning is rooted in the work of creation and in human culture, specified in the events of the Old Covenant and fully revealed in the person and the work of Christ”      Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1145

Since Pentecost, it is through the sacramental signs of his Church that the Holy Spirit carries on the work of sanctification.  The sacraments of the Church to not abolish but purify and integrate all the richness of the signs and symbols of the cosmos and of social life.  Further, the fulfill the types and figures of the Old Covenant, signify and make actively present the salvation wrought by Christ, and prefigure and anticipate the glory of Heaven.”   CCC 1152

With regard to these signs in the Liturgy, let’s focus on just one example, the tabernacle.  Now granted, it is a conspicuous example – that golden focal point in each Catholic church.  But with regard to the form of the tabernacle, here is a question you might have asked at one time or another:  Why is the tabernacle so often designed to look like a miniature church building?

Of course we know that tabernacles in our Catholic churches take their very name from the Tabernacle of the Israelites – fashioned painstakingly at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the wilderness.  An exceeding amount of care was taken in the design and construction of not only the Tabernacle itself, but also the precinct around it, and especially the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat within.  The Tabernacle was referred to as the Tent of Meeting; the place at which the Lord came to dwell among his people; beginning the journey towards the fullness of Redemption that we are offered in Christ.

In fact many Eucharistic tabernacles in our churches take their form from the Ark itself and the Mercy Seat, with Cherubim seated as guardians, their wings outstretched above.  However, there is another tradition that connects the form of the church building – which is our new place of encounter with the Lord – with the form of the tabernacle – which is the place where the Lord’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist is reposed.  And this connection speaks to the way in which the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery have gathered up, transformed, and transcended the Tabernacle and Temple worship of the Israelite people.

Some of you can recall churches in which the form of the tabernacle was designed to be closely related to the form of the building itself.  In fact, the roles performed by the two different structures are analogous.  These roles are layered and interconnected, and so perhaps they can be better understood by considering them separately.

1) To house, protect, and hold (to reserve) the Body of Christ; and they both do this for the glorification of God and the sanctification of men – the dual ends toward which the Liturgy is oriented.

2) Show forth and signify (make manifest) the inestimable worth and beauty of the Body of Christ.

3) Await the outward mission (sending forth) of the Body of Christ for the good of the world.

4) To inspire confidence that the Lord is indeed faithful to his promises, and he has truly come to dwell with and among his people.

This analogy between tabernacle and church is not merely interesting.  Rather, like all liturgical symbolism it is meant to convey to the Faithful to a deep theological reality, to reveal something of the nature of God and our relationship to him.  In this case we see very clearly that the connection drawn between these two structures is meant to confirm us in the fact that we are the Body of Christ; and when we gather for worship Christ himself becomes truly present in the assembly of the people of God, housed within the church building, just as Christ present in the Eucharist is reserved within the tabernacle.

But also we should consider this relationship in another way – from the perspective of the secular world.  Consider that the importance, beauty, and attractiveness of the tabernacle for Catholics is (or most certainly should be) similar to the importance, beauty, and attractiveness of the church building for those outside the Church.  The church building serves as a sign and symbol of the People of God in a given place.

“These visible churches are not simply gathering places but they signify and make visible the Church living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Christ.”  CCC 1180

So the analogy holds here also.  It is a simple step, and the paraphrase stands to reason, that the tabernacle, like the church building “signifies and makes visible Christ living in this place, the dwelling of God with men reconciled and united in Himself.”

As we come to understand that we truly are being built up into Christ’s own Body, and that our communal worship makes him truly present in our liturgical celebrations, then it should be abundantly clear as to why our tabernacles would look like our churches.  They both serve to house and make manifest the Body of our Lord.

And one final point with regard to how we might better understand our church buildings in light of the tabernacle.  It would be difficult to find a Catholic who did not believe that the tabernacle should be made of the best materials and be truly beautiful.  And why?  Of course because it receives the very Body of Christ veiled in the Eucharistic Host.  Why then do we fail to apply the same logic of beauty and nobility to our churches themselves?  These buildings do truly receive the one and the very same Body of our Lord, veiled as it were in our own communal assembly.

If our tabernacles should be noble beautiful and signs of God’s presence with us on earth – and indeed they should! – so then must our church buildings aim toward the very same goals, for the very same reasons.