The readings at Mass that the Catholic Church uses this week are from the Letter to the Hebrews, and Thursday’s (1/21/2021) reading invites some reflection on tabernacles. Lemme skip around a bit.
So what’s a tabernacle? It’s a tent, with a history – with special reference to the tent which housed the stone tablets of the Law given by God to Moses – the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle is a dwelling of sorts, where God dwells in some sort of way.
King David wanted to provide a better dwelling for the Lord. He lived in a palace, but the corner of the universe set aside by the king and his people for the Lord was still a tent. So he was ready and eager to do better. The prophet Nathan said okay; but then slept on it, and returned with a more careful answer. God says no: God will build a house for David instead. And then Nathan talked about the House of David: it’s not made of stone, but is rather a people, a kingdom.
Catholic churches have “tabernacles.” They aren’t tents; they are boxes sitting on the altar in the front of the church. Inside the tabernacle is the Blessed Sacrament, bread that the Lord broke and blessed and distributed to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”
I’m a Catholic, and I accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. But I am deeply uncomfortable with teaching that starts weird and then goes nowhere. I’m happy to start weird as long as we go somewhere. And let me explain where I think the Lord’s words go: it’s more than a gold box. We understand that tabernacle when we see it radiate.
There wasn’t a tabernacle on the table at the Last Supper. There is no story about the fragments left over after the meal that night. They ate the bread; they consumed the flesh of the sacrifice. Did they do it right? Or was that just a primitive beginning, a Model T? What did the Lord do?
After a person receives Communion, where is the Lord? I’m okay with the tabernacle, but I think that’s a radically incomplete answer. The Lord dwells in his people. The dwelling we construct for him is interesting and useful, but the dwelling the Lord constructs matters more – and that dwelling is not a box; it’s the hearts of his people. That is, it seems to me appropriate to bow before the tabernacle – before all tabernacles – including each child of God. When the rite of Communion is completed – that is, when Mass is over – in a church with – say, for example – 600 people and a tabernacle up front, the Lord dwells sacramentally in 601 places. And half an hour later, the Lord still dwells, sacramentally, in 601 places.
When I walk down the street and pass someone, have I walked past a tabernacle of the Lord? Dunno; likely so. For sure, with tranquil certainty, I can say that this person may be a tabernacle, and should be a tabernacle. But is he/she? Dunno; but prudence demands that I assume so.
I understand that there are some people who are believe, more or less explicitly, a fragmentary thing. They believe that God enters into the hearts and minds and indeed into the bodies of his people – but then, they think, this presence in and among us is fleeting. After a little gastric acid and/or inattention and/or sin on our part, the Lord departs, decamps. He still dwells inside that gold box, but probably not inside me and you, and definitely not inside Joe. So say some people, although they may say it much more elegantly (and obscurely).
I don’t think God is squeamish. He comes to dwell with us – in us! – and he means it. The tabernacle that David wanted to build, and the tabernacles that we want to build, are interesting and useful. But the tabernacle that matters is what the Lord builds. I am / thou art / he/she/it is / we are / you are / they are tabernacle(s). So said God; and if he said it, he did it.
When we think about God’s visits in Scripture, the idea of tabernacle may get clearer. Elijah was in a cave when God visited. Elijah went to entrance of the cave, and saw storms and earthquakes – but found God in the gentle breeze. So God communicated gently: got that. But also, he communicated at the door of the cave. Elijah was in a quiet spot, a place of quiet meditation and contemplation; but God spoke to him as he came out. Not to say as he burst forth; that’s not right. But God was there at a place of transition, where quiet thought turns into action. Elijah went back inside the cave, but he didn’t stay there; God had spoken to him, and so he was getting ready to come out and make some changes in the world.
God visited Abraham at his home in Mamre. But they met at the entrance of the tent. They were in and out. Their conversation that evening ended under the stars.
The whole idea of a tent is about being in the midst or on the brink of action. If you stop permanently, you build a house. But if you are restless, peripatetic, on the move, on a pilgrimage, on a campaign, ready to go – well, tents are better.
John’s Gospel proclaims that the Word of God came to us, came to dwell among us. John’s word for this is provocative: the Lord came to “pitch his tent” among us. He might build us into a house, but he himself dwells among us in a tent, because he keeps tumbling forward. His home, his castle, his palace – and ours, in eternity – is elsewhere.
Caves and tents – we meet the Lord as we tumble out of the quiet into action. And yet, we do cherish the times and places of quiet. The cave has an entrance, but it’s a cave. So what’s in my cave? What do we choose to do in the cave, to shape that space?
I was very interested in the stories about Biden’s cave (if indeed it is such), the Oval Office. It’s a place for a ruler – not with a sceptre and a throne, but with a pen at a desk. Not in robes and mantles, but in coat and tie. The details change a bit, but this is a place where a ruler does his ruling, where he pronounces his decisions. And the way he shapes that space can and should explain what goes on inside his imagination before we hear what’s in his mouth. If the office isn’t in fact his cave, still it can and should correspond to whatever it is that he uses to decorate the walls of his cave, the home of his imagination, the tabernacle of his soul, where he listens to the Lord. And indeed, Biden chose busts and pictures of an impressive group from the communion of saints to stand around him as he ponders and rules. His family of course, and Washington and Lincoln of course, and crisis manager FDR, tussle-dancers Jefferson/Hamilton, martyrs MLKing and RFKennedy, activists Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez and a sculpture by an Apache from a Japanese-Hawaiian friend, geek Franklin and a moon rock, Unionizers Lincoln and Webster. The choices reveal, and are meant to reveal: if he’s not really intending to emulate these men and women as well as he can, he’s a liar, deceiving us for sure and perhaps himself.
In the tabernacle of our hearts, we surround ourselves with the clear recollection of God’s word and work in our lives, and with the love and the work of family and friends and heroes and models and artists and poets and other sources of strength and joy and challenge. That is (I think): we build our tabernacle according to the model of the house that the Lord promised to build for David: the House of David is the People of God.
God came to dwell among his people – in fact, in his people. We are the tabernacle, and although we are the anointed stewards and empowered custodians of our souls, it is the Lord who builds. And he is comfortable living in my restless heart, because he came to live among us in a tumble-forward dwelling – a tent but especially the entrance, a cave but especially the exit, in our hearts but also in our hands, where love becomes service, where hidden contemplation becomes visible action.
Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true.
With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living
Sanctuary for you.
|Wash Post photo in Biden's Oval Office|