Walk into many if not most Catholic churches, and in the center of the sanctuary you’ll see a tabernacle. This locked box, often covered in gold and richly decorated, contains consecrated Hosts from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass so that Communion can be taken to the sick and so that the faithful can pray in the presence of the Lord Jesus even outside of Mass itself. The tabernacle’s elaborate form and central location evoke the Ark of the Covenant which Moses built during the Exodus and which later stood in the innermost chamber of Solomon’s Temple. That resemblance is a fitting one. Just as the Ark contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and the manna with which God fed the Israelites as they traveled, the tabernacle contains the Word of God made flesh, the very Body and Blood of Christ which nourishes the People of God every day.
The description of the Ark in the Book of Exodus is generally consistent with what archaeologists know about traveling altars found in cultures across the ancient Near East, but there’s one important difference. Atop the Ark were two carved angels kneeling toward a central place where most of these altars would have featured an image of the deity to be worshipped, but the Ark had no central image, because the one true God was beyond comprehension. Instead, biblical descriptions of the Ark mention the shekinah, a mysterious cloud that somehow manifested God’s glory, brooding over the Ark. The Prophet Ezekiel recalls a vision wherein he stares into the brilliant light of the shekinah and almost makes out the form of a man seated on a throne, but any direct physical depictions of the invisible God were strictly prohibited for ancient Israelites. Consider, for example, the Golden Calf that Moses destroys in Exodus 32.
As Christians, however, we believe that God does in fact have a physical form in the person of Jesus Christ. St. John Damascene writes about how, in assuming to himself a human nature, God the Son truly becomes present to our eyes and other senses. So, the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas makes holy what once was forbidden. Appropriately, look above a centrally placed tabernacle and you’ll almost always find a Crucifix. Ezekiel’s mysterious vision is fulfilled. When we look upon the Crucified Christ, we look upon an image of God enthroned. The glory that previous generations longed to glimpse is faithfully depicted above the place of God’s Real Presence. God’s revelation of Himself as a man dying on a Cross – or as a baby born in a stable – teaches us that the height of His glorious power, wisdom, and beauty is His endless, self-giving love.
Br. Philip Neri Gerlomes, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE