For many who remember how Catholic churches were appointed prior to the liturgical reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s, almost ubiquitous in sanctuaries was a central tabernacle covered with a veil. In many respects, as the sanctuary represents the Holy of Holies of the New Covenant, so the tabernacle is the Ark of the New Covenant, the vessel in which is contained the physical presence of the living and true God in the Eucharistic bread. As the tablets of the 10 Commandments in the original Ark were the tangible substance of the Old Covenant, so the Blessed Sacrament is of the New.
If we were to see the present Catholic sanctuary through the lens of our own Roman liturgical tradition, as well as in light of its strong Old Testament lineage, the absence of a tabernacle veil seems, then, to be rather incongruous. The preponderance for removing tabernacle veils came into vogue in the late 1960s as part of the supposed “simplification” of liturgical rites. It was a movement with no basis in legislation, but was fueled by flawed, populist theological ideas, and has had some rather unintended consequences.
Most Catholics are largely under the impression that the True Presence of Christ in the tabernacle is indicated solely by the presence of a sanctuary lamp burning near the tabernacle. In point of fact, the lamp burns not as an indication that the Blessed Sacrament is present in the tabernacle so much as it burns as “a sign of honor paid to the Lord,” a vigil lamp not unlike the candles burning in many churches as a pledge of one’s continued spiritual presence. In other words, the sanctuary lamp stands in our place as a testimony to our desire to remain with the Lord in vigil when doing so is simply not possible.
The quoted phrase in the above paragraph is taken from a 1980 document promulgated by the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship under the authority of Pope John Paul II. The full sentence states: “The presence of the Eucharist is to be indicated by a tabernacle veil or some other suitable means laid down by the competent authority, and a lamp must perpetually burn before it, as a sign of honor paid to the Lord” (Inaestimabile Donum, no. 25). This instruction echoes a 1967 instruction (note this is two years after the close of Vatican II) which states: “Care should be taken that the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle is indicated to the faithful by a tabernacle veil or some other suitable means prescribed by the competent authority” (Eucharisticum Mysterium, no. 57). Each of these documents represents formal legislation that not only requires the presence of a veil over the tabernacle, but they also make very clear its intended purpose.
Just like the veil in the Holy of Holies, a veil on the tabernacle in the Catholic sanctuary serves to give greater delineation between the human and the divine, between that which is mundane and that which is sublime. While some may see it as a barrier, a veiled tabernacle is far more an invitation to look past the physical attributes of a richly ornamented box, and to see with the eyes of Faith the Mystery that lies beyond it: the Presence of God Incarnate, His Flesh given for the life of the world.
Therein lies the great novelty and wisdom of the Church. Borrowing from our Jewish ancestors in Faith, we, too, are not so perfunctory in our worship that we put forth only the bare minimum in service to God. Rather, our love of God and our desire to sacrifice for love of Him leads us to give the very best that we have in service to Him: precious objects crafted out of love, given to the exclusive purpose of worshiping God, and—to top it all off—veiled from view, that we may not be led by hubris to contemplate our own generosity or the richness of our sacrifice! The veiled tabernacle is, in a certain respect, a sign of having given without counting the cost.
As to the question of why the tabernacle in our own sanctuary is not veiled [it now is], we, too, are [were] the victims of a bygone age of populist theology that sought to level the playing field between God and man. Such folly has led us not to a deeper understanding of God but farther away from recognizing the immensity of our Divine Creator and the awesome grace that it is to be in His Presence. Perhaps one day a veil might return to our tabernacle. Until then, we can at least remind ourselves periodically of the need to see in the Faith opportunities to encounter God in His mystery and magnificence: the Creator of the Universe, humbling Himself to be among us.
Originally published in The Lewis County Catholic Times on 22 January 2017.