The Biblical Tabernacle: We Catholics Would Feel at Home
After their harrowing escape from pharaoh's charioteers, and the walls of the Red Sea crashing behind them, the Hebrews made their exodus from Egypt only to find themselves in the desert for forty years. They were first at Mount Sinai and then wandering in the wilderness in search of food and water as directed by God.
During this time, Moses was instructed by God to build a dwelling for him in the desert. God said,
"Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you" (Ex 25:8).
This earthly tabernacle was a large tent with two rooms. It was essentially a portable temple designed by God and patterned after heaven. Since it was a replica of heaven, God was meticulous in laying out the details and the measurements were exact. Everything, from the angels that surrounded his throne, to the veil that enclosed his glorious presence, meant something deeper on a symbolic level. Nothing was random or haphazard because it reflected the perfectly ordered mind of God.
The instructions, in Exodus chapters 25-28, read like an architect's blueprints. Not only the tent structure but each of the poles that held it up, the canvas covering it and the furnishings inside were carefully detailed. From the wooden objects overlaid in gold, the gold-lined walls, the fabrics and the dimensions of each piece within, it was all by divine design.
There were two rooms. The 15 feet by 15 feet square, holy of holies, was the location of God’s earthly throne, the ark of the covenant. The other rectangular room separated only by a fabric veil, called the holy room. measured 15 x 30 feet. In it were located three items: the 7 branched lampstand, the table of showbread and the altar of incense.
There was also an outer fence surrounding the tabernacle and creating a courtyard. In the courtyard were located the altar of sacrifice and the laver (a large bronze bowl containing water used for ceremonial washing).
Our Jewish Roots
Both Jewish liturgy, and by extension Christian liturgy, going forward from that time period looked back at the tabernacle and the sacrificial system of worship as its liturgical roots. Bread, wine, incense and animals like lambs and bulls were offered as sacrifices each day. These sacrifices and the priesthood itself were detailed in the manual for the levitical priests. We call it the book of Leviticus.
When we as Catholics look at this astounding tent and its Jewish system of worship, we recognize that it is our heritage as well. We discover the biblical roots of our worship and even of our worship spaces.
We see a holy place divided into two, with precious metals consecrated and used in sacrifice. We see bread and wine offered to God on a table. We see incense rising into a fragrant cloud above and candles flickering off of the gold-lined walls. We see men in vestments carrying out ritual actions, using sacrificial terminology, we hear the harps and the psalms as they are chanted. We see an altar, blood and a lamb. We see a large font of water into which people are dipping their hands.
We are left to wonder is this Moses' Tabernacle liturgy or a Catholic Mass?
A Type of Christ
To take it a step further we can identify how everything in the tabernacle points to Jesus. This is not a surprise given that Jesus referred to his body as the New Temple.
The sacrifice of the lamb points to Jesus as our sacrificial lamb. The altar of sacrifice points to both the Catholic altar and the cross of Jesus. The laver full of water points to baptism, holy water and when the priest washes his hands at Mass during the lavabo rite. The holy room signifies the nave of the church. The seven branched candlestick signifies Jesus, the perfect light of the world. The table of showbread points to our altar as a table and the bread and wine to the Eucharist.
The altar of incense calls to mind the incense at Mass on special feast days and seasons which signifies our prayers rising to heaven. The veil that separates the two rooms stands for the invisible cosmic veil that separates the seen from the unseen through which Jesus, our High Priest, passed in his glorious ascension.
The Holy of holies signifies the sanctuary of the church where traditionally the Catholic tabernacle is placed. It was the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling where his shekinah glory hovers over the ark of the covenant.
The ark of the covenant was a chest covered in gold inside and out. The lid is called the propitiatory of the Lord. It was here, in between two cherubim, that God’s throne on earth was found. Inside the ark were three very important symbols of the covenant: The jar of manna, the ten commandment tablets and the staff of the high priest Aaron. Mary, the mother of our Lord is called the Ark of the New Covenant. Mary, is beautiful and pure like gold inside and out. Furthermore, she contained in her womb Jesus, the High Priest, the Word of God and the Bread of Life.
The Pattern of Catholic Church Architecture
The traditional architecture of Catholic churches closely followed the pattern of the Old Testament Tabernacle. There were basically two rooms separated, not by a veil, but by an altar rail or rood screen. There was the nave where the people of God gathered. The term nave is from navis, the Latin word for ship, like church as the barque of Peter.
There was the sanctuary further east of the nave called an apse. Situated to the East, the apse was closest to the rising of the sun. Eventually, the two wings were added (called a transept) to make the building resemble a cross.
The Temple Mount Then and Now
Back to the Bible story. Eventually, King David transported the tabernacle and the ark to Jerusalem. Later, his son, Solomon fulfilled his father’s dream and built the first temple on the holy mountain close to where Abraham offered Isaac. The stone foundation in the Holy of Holies was said to be the very stone that Isaac was laid for his sacrifice in Gen. 22. Solomon faithfully designed the Temple after the pattern of the Tabernacle.
When we hear about Jesus at the Temple it was by that time a new bigger temple built by Herod the Great on the same spot. That same Temple, Herod's Temple, that the 12 year old Jesus called his Father's house was destroyed, as Christ predicted, in the year 70 AD by the Romans.
Today, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the only part of Herod’s Temple that remains is the Western Wall. There are two Islamic mosques, Al Aqsa and Dome of the Rock built over the site of the ancient Temple. They date back to the 600’s AD. This historical Temple Mount drama is one of the reasons why there is tension between Israel and the Middle East Muslims today.
So for us as Catholics, the Old Testament Tabernacle and later the Temple, became a key root and foundation for our Catholic churches and mostly our eucharistic liturgy. The Old Testament Tabernacle teaches us about our understanding of the presence of God in the Eucharist. It resides in a holy tabernacle, in a holy sanctuary, in a holy building consecrated for priests in vestments to offer the holy sacrifice on an altar.