Brief synopsis or the readings: In the the Second Book of Samuel we find King David living in a palace in Jerusalem. He commented to the prophet Nathan that while he (David) lives in luxury, the Ark of the Covenant (the stone tablets containing the 10 Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai) was stored in a tent and David thought perhaps they should be in luxury also. That night God came to Nathan in a dream. God reminded Nathan that all that they have came from God and “the Lord will make you a House.” God also promised to be with them for all eternity. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary. Gabriel reveals that God has chosen her to carry and bear the “Son of the Most High” who will rule forever. Confused, Mary reminded Gabriel that she was not married and couldn’t become pregnant. But Gabriel told her that nothing is impossible for God and as proof Gabriel reminded her that her kinswoman Elizabeth was pregnant after years of infertility. Mary accepted this in these words: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.”
In Exodus we learned that when Moses climbed Mt. Sinai, God carved the 10 Commandments into two stone tablets that Moses then carried down to the people. It was called the “Ark of the Covenant” and traveled with the Israelites on their journey to Jerusalem.
Nobody believed the Ark was God but it was, in a sense, the handwriting of God and David recognized that it deserved a hallowed place. But it must have surprised David (assuming Nathan shared his dream with David) that instead of God being pleased with David’s plans, God took that opportunity to remind David that he can’t build God palace deserving of the Ark because David has nothing outside of God. Not to push this point too far, but I think God got a little bit of a chuckle out of this.
But in the end, David’s son Solomon built a Temple and it held two purposes. It was the place of worship for all the Israelites, but in the center (called the “Holy of Holies”) held the Ark. Admission to the Holy of Holies was severely restricted in both who could enter and when they could enter.
From that point on, though, we’ve recognized the importance of buildings, of places that we house the most important artifacts and symbols of our worship. The Ark of the Covenant was likely destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians but the Second Temple housed the scrolls of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Even today the center of Jewish synagogues holds a scroll of the Torah.
As Catholic Christians we don’t build our places of worship around scrolls, but something that we do value: the Eucharist. At the Last Supper we believe that Jesus transformed bread and wine into his own Body and Blood. Early churches gathered each week where the priest and congregation did as Jesus commanded (“Do this in memory of me”). The congregation consumed the Body and Blood but they also reserved some of it and kept it in receptacles called Tabernacles. It became our Holy of Holies and today you can spot the tabernacle in a church because there is a lit candle next to it.
But at the same time our ancestors also paid attention to the buildings where we worshiped. My favorite novel of all time, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, describes the building of a Medieval Cathedral in 12th Century England. It was seen as a place of worship for the townspeople but also a place that is large and ornate enough to please God.
We see this even today. My parents grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where their church was completed in 1915. And while the church is a nightmare to heat in the winter it was a place of pride among the parishioners. Most of them were poor, some of them were illiterate, and all of them were willing to donate not from their surplus but their need. While in college I lived in a town that had different churches that served Italian, Irish, and French immigrants. All three competed to build the largest and most ornate churches to show the others how faithful they were.
When we think of the “Holy of Holies,” though, we shouldn’t limit it to tabernacles in churches. When we take Communion we also become a tabernacle. In the same way that Mary carried Jesus before he was born, so do we carry Jesus in the Eucharist.
And here’s the thing: others are tabernacles too. Even those we don’t like. Advent is a time of waiting, but it’s also a time of coming together (even with masks and social distancing). There is much that divides us these days and sometimes these divisions may seem insurmountable. The economic policies we support, the candidates we vote for, our opinions on the neighbors can sometimes take on disproportionate importance.
Many of us remember our First Communion when we were seven or eight. Among other instructions we were told that after we received the Eucharist we should keep our head down, return to our seat, and (while keeping our head down) kneel and pray. Eye contact was not supposed to happen as it would distract from our devotion to God.
Apologies to my teachers back then but I’ve always disagreed. As an altar boy I held a plate under the chin of the person receiving Communion (in case he host fell) and it gave me the opportunity to watch the person become, once again, a tabernacle. I treasured that. Later, as a Eucharistic Minister, I had the opportunity to look the person in the eye and say: “The Body of Christ.” For me it was a moment of connection, a brief time when we were able to acknowledge that we were united in a way that both transformed us and united us.
At the end of the day none of our divisions matter more than the fact that we worship, await, and carry the Holy of Holies. We carry on the tradition that began with David.