The pending restoration of our church sanctuary has spurned much discussion about the tabernacle. Where should it be located? Should it be humble or ornate? Some have even questioned its purpose. Is the tabernacle merely a storage locker for extra hosts or a place of reservation suitable for adoration?
According to Pope Benedict's book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, the tabernacle is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant. Viewing the tabernacle in such typological terms carries certain implications. One tenet of typology says that the New Testament reality can never be inferior to the Old Testament type. We know what the Ark looked like and how it was constructed (Exodus 25). If the tabernacle harboring the Bread of Life is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant as Pope Benedict says, then we would do well to treat it accordingly. The tabernacle should be of superior quality and treated with due reverence.
In 2 Samuel 6:1-5, we read about the Ark being moved on a cart from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem. When the oxen began to tip the cart, one of Abinadab's sons named Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark. Instead of rewarding Uzzah for saving the Ark from damage, God killed Uzzah on the spot. Uzzah was not worthy to touch the Ark. Should we not then treat the fulfillment of this Ark with even greater respect?
Moviegoers who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark know how Steven Spielberg portrayed the wrath of God when an unworthy person violated the Ark. Those of us old enough to have made our first Communion prior to Vatican II probably envisioned a similar calamity should we have accidentally touched the Communion host with our hands. Now, much of our reverence has unfortunately diminished with the relaxed rules. As Thomas Aquinas warned, changing a rule without necessary reason will diminish the binding power of the rule. In simple terms, the fact that a rule is changeable means it must not be too important.
Paul warns those who would eat the Body and drink the Blood in an unworthy manner. (1 Cor 11:23-27) In view of what happened to Uzzah, we would do well to heed Paul's warning by approaching the Lord's table in a state of grace. For those moments when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we too become Arks or God-bearers, and therefore, cannot be inferior to the Old Testament Ark.
The fact that Jesus had two distinct natures sometimes places us in a quandary on how to behave toward Him. Do we treat Him as God or man when He is in fact both? When our small parish sanctuary was remodeled in the 1970's, the tabernacle was changed from ornate to humble. Jesus was born in a stable we were told. He humbled Himself to become man. The emphasis at that time seemed to be on his humanity.
Perhaps the dual nature of Jesus is the cause of many of the conflicting ideas we have in how He should be worshiped. Should the Mass be celebrated on an altar of sacrifice or a dinner table? Should the priest face the congregation or face the east with the rest of us? Should we dispense with the iconography and sacred artwork in favor of simplicity and humility? Do we build beautiful cathedrals or functional gathering places? Do we genuflect or bow? Should we kneel or stand?
The sanctuary architecture and specifically the degree of attention drawn to the tabernacle conveys a message to those who see it. That message can be both overt and covert or subliminal. If the tabernacle design is little more than a fancy breadbox, little attention will be drawn to it. The overt message may be humility, but the covert message is indifference.
The human nature of Jesus is easier for us to understand. We are human and we know what it is like. The Divine nature is much more difficult. His Divine nature is what distinguishes Him from all the rest of us, and therefore, the nature that takes emphasis. It is that nature which commands our worship. It is the significance of that nature that we convey to others by the way we treat it.
For that same reason, the altar of sacrifice should resemble one. A tendency of some liturgists is to stress the community meal aspect of the Eucharist at the expense of recognizing the sacrificial nature. Is the Mass a sacrifice or a meal? It is both, but there is no meal without the sacrifice. The community meal is obvious to those participating. The sacrificial aspect must be taught.
This dichotomous relationship was a subject of discussion at the Bishop's Synod held in Rome earlier this month. Many Bishops recognize the problem of emphasizing the human nature over the divine nature and are calling for a return to more reverent behavior. Some have called for returning to the three hour fast before receiving the Eucharist, and a greater emphasis on the need for frequent confession. At least one bishop wants to again require Communion on the tongue while kneeling. All of this sounds good, but getting everyone to comply with stricter guidelines will be difficult at this point as Thomas Aquinas predicted.