Tabernacles and the Real Presence

In practically any church or chapel, one will find an eternally lit candle, often encased in red glass, next to a metal receptacle of some kind. To those unfamiliar with Catholic practice and worship, it can be variably described as “that pretty metal box behind the table,” “the object of that strange calisthenic exercise you call ‘genuflection,’” and other things. We know it as the tabernacle, the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The tabernacle is often the focus of some of our most intense prayer, since we recognize it as the dwelling place of God on earth. But how did the tabernacle develop, and why do we afford it such reverence?

The idea of a tabernacle, like most Catholic liturgical practice, is grounded in Scripture. The first physical dwelling of the Spirit of God was the Ark of the Covenant, a box covered in gold which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the staff of Aaron (Moses’ brother and the first High Priest), and a bit of manna, the bread of heaven (Exodus 25, Hebrews 9). During the exile of Israel in the desert, the Ark was housed in a tent. God gave Moses detailed specifications for this tent, called the “tabernacle,” in Exodus 25, and God spoke to Moses from the Ark when the two were alone in the tabernacle. Then, long after the Israelites settled in Canaan, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem as a permanent dwelling place for the Ark.

In the early Church, because Mass was celebrated in secret, the Eucharist was reserved in the house-churches of the faithful, kept in jars called arca or arcula. Eusebius notes that the Eucharist was reserved in priests’ homes so they could bring it to the sick. When churches began to be built, the Sacrament was often kept in a space just off of the sanctuary, as attested to in the Apostolic Constitutions. Beginning with the time of Constantine, elaborate metal pyxes were designed to hold the Eucharist; they often took one of two shapes. One was a dove, which symbolizes the work of the Holy Spirit in making Christ present in the Eucharist. The other is a tower, which could refer either to the “tower of David” from the Song of Songs, or a reminder to be watchful for the Second Coming of Christ. These were often hung above the altar via chains attached to a baldacchino, the canopy over the altar.

In 1215, the Second Lateran Council established the dogma of the Real Presence. Because of this, the Council ordered that the Sacrament be kept in a secure, well-fastened receptacle. In the fourteenth century, it became popular in northern Europe to house the Eucharist in “tabernacle houses,” tall, elaborate metal constructions which were kept separate from the altar. However, beginning in sixteenth-century Italy, bishops demanded that the tabernacle be placed on an altar, either the main altar or a side altar, in response to the Protestant denial of the Real Presence. Even until the reforms of the 1960’s, the Sacrament had to be reserved on a side altar whenever a bishop celebrated Mass, because the bishop had to turn his back to the main altar, and it was unacceptable to turn one’s back on the Blessed Sacrament.

However, in recently-designed churches, the tabernacle can be difficult to find, hidden in a side chapel. Why is this? After the Second Vatican Council, Church documents maintained that the tabernacle be kept “with the greatest honor and in the most distinguished position” (Mysterium Fidei), though some documents note that they could be kept “in another, special and properly adorned part of the church” (Inter Oecumenici). The 1973 norms on the reception of Communion note that “[i]t is highly recommended that the place be suitable also for private adoration… This will be achieved more readily if the chapel is separate from the body of the church.” The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that “[t]he tabernacle… should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated and suitable for prayer.”

So, although the 20th-century documents allow for and even encourage the Sacrament to be reserved in a side chapel, it should still be given a place of prominence. It is up to us to remember that the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest gift we receive, and that its tabernacle, the dwelling place of God, should be afforded respect and reverence.

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