September 11, 2016
What is that wooden box over the credence table and why is the candle burning in front of it?
Sometimes the question of the week comes from a conversation with someone, not in a letter or an email. This question was posed by an acolyte-in-training last week. It is a really good question and one that I am glad that the trainee had either the audacity or obliviousness to ask.
The box itself is called a tabernacle (a Hebrew word for tent), and the candle in front of it is lit when the consecrated (blessed bread and wine from the Eucharist) is being reserved there for later use, such as when visiting the homebound with communion. The candle is not lit when there are no reserves in the tabernacle.
Here is the metaphorical and literal history of this tradition. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. During that time they were commanded by God to build a tent for the purpose of housing the ten commandments and a jar of the manna from heaven. When they traveled, God would lead them as a pillar of cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night. This is a short way of saying that God was tenting (i.e. living with them).
During the prayer of the Great Thanksgiving in communion, the Presider and the People pray for the spirit to be the "real presence" of Christ. Once that has been done, the bread and wine do not turn back into bread and wine at the end of the service. They remain the "real presence" of Christ until consumed. This begs the question of what to do with the leftovers from the Eucharist. Some of the remains are consumed reverently and some are reserved in the Tabernacle.
When the flame is not lit, it does not mean that the tabernacle is no longer a holy place, it simply means that the real presence of Christ is not there in its sacramental sense, more vernacularly—Jesus is not at home.
The tabernacle is an object of reverence for what it contains and it represents the understanding of us, Christian Pilgrims, that Christ is present just as God was present to his people, those earlier pilgrims, in the Wilderness.
The Rev. David Lucey