Tabernacles, Eternal Lights, and Visual Sermons
There are many exceptional traditions in our rich orthodox and catholic heritage. Two traditions now bear explanation because this Lord’s Day when you walk into the sanctuary (if you have not seen already) you will notice that the wooden cross has been replaced with a tabernacle, and that a sanctuary lamp now hangs on the column behind the Gospel pulpit. These new visual sermons will, I trust, add beauty to our ‘dance’ of worship.
The Casing of the Eucharist – About Tabernacles
In the Old Covenant the special presence of God was housed in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, in a special inner room called the Holy of Holies or the Most Holy Place. We no longer worship ‘the God behind the veils’ but the God who has shown Himself clearly in Christ and dwells among His people wherever they are. We encounter the Lord especially personally in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Each week when we repeat the words of Jesus, “This is my body…this is my blood” the ordinary creatures of bread and wine, through some gracious mystery of God, become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord Himself is truly and specially present to give Himself to us, Bridegroom to Bride. When the service is over, the elements of bread and wine do not then cease to be consecrated but remain the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore are still attended by His special Presence. From very early times this was recognized and arrangements were made for their keeping until the next time we meet Him in Holy Communion.
Early on, before the Church had churches, in many places the bread was taken home from the place of worship in boxes and eaten reverently at a later time. Once physical church buildings were common the left over sacramental elements were stored in a special box kept in a place not in the sanctuary proper, like the sacristy (the room where implements and vestments for worship were kept.) Over centuries the tabernacle moved to the sanctuary somewhere near the altar, and for nearly half a millennium now it has mostly occupied the center place on, just behind, or above the altar. To indicate the presence of the Presence in the tabernacle it became common have a lit lamp hung in front of or near the tabernacle, commonly called the sanctuary lamp.
A Lamp by any Other Name is Just as Bright (Uh, sorry.)
It is called many names: sanctuary lamp, altar lamp, everlasting light, or eternal flame. You may have notice an sanctuary lamp shining near the altar while visiting other churches.
It all really began nearly three thousand five hundred years ago when our fathers in faith were brought forth from Egypt by many and powerful signs. While camped at Mt. Sinai the Lord gave our ancestors instructions prescribed in Exodus 27:20-21:
And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation without the veil, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the LORD: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel. (KJV)
A light perpetually burned before the veiled presence of God in the Tabernacle. It was a visual sermon reminding the people of God’s eternal and perpetual presence, that He dwelt in the midst of His people.
In New Covenant usage the idea has come to mean various things. First, it was kept alight to indicate and hounour the presence of Christ, a sign of the blessed Sacrament reserved and stored in the tabernacle. Second, the lamp symbolizes the Light of the World, who is Christ, the Sun that never sets, and always burns in a sin-darkened world overcoming the darkness. The material light represents Him who coming into the world is the “true light which enlighteneth every man” (John 1:9). Third, it reminds the people of God of the ever faithful, never-leaving presence of God with and in His people. And lastly, the devotion of keeping the lamp lit ‘eternally’ is an acknowledgment of all these truths and is (we hope) a sign of our true love and devoted affection.
A Reason to Bow or Kneel
Knowing that the presence of Christ is mysteriously with the consecrated bread in the tabernacle gives us a clear reason to show honour to the Lord by offering a reverent bow or kneeling. This is usually shown by a short bow (rather than a deep one) or briefly kneeling on one knee (usually the left knee bends and the right knee touches the floor.) Most traditionally the bow or kneeling is done as we enter our pews to be seated, when we leave to come forward for communion, when we return to our seats after receiving the Sacrament, and at the end of the service as we exit the pew before leaving the sanctuary.
May the Lord richly bless us each Lord’s Day as we faithfully worship with these new visual sermons helping us by His grace.