The Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
2018 – Cycle B
Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
After he had conquered his enemies and the city of Jerusalem, brought up the Ark of the Covenant and was all settled as King of Israel, David had the great idea to build a temple for God. “Here am I living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!” [2 Samuel 7:2] For what he thought was a noble idea, David received an unexpected response from God through the prophet Nathan: “Should you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house [temple] from the day on which I led Israel out of Egypt to the present, but I have been going about in a tent under cloth.” [See 2 Samuel 7:5-6ff]
“I have been going about in a tent.” Consider the humble tent. Whether a pup tent of a scout troop or the great Bedouin tents of goat and camel hide and carpets dotted across the Sahara desert. It is the simplest of shelters, easily assembled. But a tent is also flimsy and easily blown over. And it is those characteristics seemingly that make a tent appealing to God. It is the same shelter as used by his wandering people that could be folded up and taken with them. The tent was a visible sign of God’s willingness to always be among his people. That is why God, although he will reluctantly allow David’s son, Solomon to build him a temple, rejects David’s offer. Temples do not move among us. We must go to temples/churches/sacred places.
The image of a tent in the story of the Hebrews propels us forward to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” The Greek literally means, “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us…” [John 1:14] Jesus, in the incarnation, is the “tent” that God dwells in. Jesus’ body, God’s chosen tent, can walk among his people. Jesus’ body like a tent is vulnerable; able to be destroyed not by desert winds but by the torture and crucifixion of his passion. Jesus the tent is a visible sign of God’s presence among us, Emmanuel.
Why am I talking about tents? The word for “tent” in Latin is, tabernaculum, coming directly into the English language as “tabernacle”. As we bless and inaugurate a new tabernacle and Blessed Sacrament Chapel for our church, it seems most appropriate to reflect on the presences of Christ in the Church and God’s chosen forms of dwelling.
I use the plural word presences of Christ and forms of dwelling because there are a number of ways in which Jesus is present to his church for the sake of the world.
The primary presence of the Holy Trinity is found in the human being. We are the dwelling places of God. Genesis records how God breathes into the nostrils of the clay creature. God breathes the breath of life and the clay becomes a living being. [Genesis 2:7] Saint Paul rhetorically questions the Corinthian community and us: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” [1 Corinthians 3:16] The Book of Revelation declares: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.” [Revelation 21:3] Before there were church buildings, before there were rituals and sacraments, before there were tabernacles, the chosen dwelling place of God has always been and continues to be is the human being created in God’s image and likeness. Jesus of Nazareth, God – incarnate, taught us we will find him in human beings who are hungry and thirsty, in the stranger and people who are naked, among the sick and the imprisoned. “Whatever you did for one of these least sisters and brothers of mine, you did it for me.” [See Matthew 25:31-46]
How do we get from the human being to the repository, we call a tabernacle?
The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy which called for the renewal of liturgical life among Catholics makes the connection. “Christ is always present in His Church [that is, the people], especially in her liturgical celebrations. [Christ] is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of [priest]…but especially under the Eucharistic [bread and wine]. By [Christ’s] power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a [priest] baptizes it is really Christ who baptizes. And by extension, when a priest absolves, it is Christ who absolves. When a priest anoints for healing it is Christ who anoints. When a man and a woman exchange vows, it is Christ present in them. When a bishop confirms in the Spirit or ordains, it is Christ who breathes forth the Spirit. [Christ] is present in His word, since it is [Christ] who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. [Christ] is present, lastly, when the Church [the people] prays and sings, for [Jesus] promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]
So, Christ is present in the gathered people praying and singing, in the person of the bishop, priest and deacon, in the living Word proclaimed, in the Sacraments celebrated and in the bread and wine offered that are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood.
The Church Father, Tertullian, also taught that the altar is a presence of Christ. That is why altars are anointed with Chrism, reverenced with a deep bow, kissed and incensed. The Altar is Christ. Nothing should be placed on an altar except the Holy Gospels and the gifts of bread and wine that are offered to God the Father in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Theologically and architecturally the center of our Catholic Churches has always been the altar. It is from the altar that some of the Body and Blood of Christ are taken and reserved in tabernacles. The reason for reserving the sacrament is to have it available to take it to the sick or the dying members of the community. From an early period this need to assist and strengthen the sick and the dying with the holy food of heaven was recognized by the community.
The Sacrament has been reserved throughout our history in a variety of ways; from dove shaped containers hung over altars to the sacristy. The word sacristy comes from the Latin sacrum, “holy”. The sacristy was where holy things were stored: the Gospel Book, the Holy Oils, the reserved Sacrament, the sacred vessels and vestments. The tabernacle as we are familiar with it at the back of altars dates from the 15th – 16th century. Tabernacles have both resided on altars and in separate chapels.
The placement of the Blessed Sacrament in a separate chapel offers no disrespect to the Sacrament or the presence of Christ but offers, first, a return to an ancient tradition continued in all great cathedral churches which makes a fundamental distinction between the celebration of the Eucharist, our highest form of worship, and the adoration of the reserved Sacrament. Second, a separate chapel offers a quiet place for prayer and contemplation, a secondary reason for reservation.
The knowledge that the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is for the sick and the dying should always call us back to Matthew’s Gospel where Christ our God has primarily chosen to dwell; in the poor and the vulnerable. If you have a particular devotion to Christ in the reserved Blessed Sacrament, reflect on how you express your concern and care for the dying, the sick, the thirty and the hunger, the imprisoned and the naked. Worship and devotion should bloom into service and service needs to have its roots set deep in devotion and worship. They are all inseparably linked.
We mark a new tabernacle today; a worthy artistic piece of beautiful woodworking done to the honour of God to house the Blessed Sacrament. As you pray in this chapel, let its simple beauty remind us of the beauty of every human being, the true dwelling place God.
Since “I led Israel out of Egypt to the present, I have been going about in a tent…”