What’s behind the curtain?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | January 25, 2022

The tabernacle veil, in various forms, reminds us of sacred presence

The first time I noticed curtains in tabernacles was when I saw the tabernacle that had survived the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. This wood tabernacle — usually at St. Mary Church in Peshtigo and, in summer, at the Peshtigo Fire Museum — has a simple white door with a painted chalice.

After the fire, the St. Mary’s tabernacle was found in the Peshtigo River, unharmed. Even the tabernacle veil inside — the cloth “curtain” — had survived.

Every tabernacle — where consecrated hosts are reserved — has a veil, sometimes called a tabernacle “curtain.” You may not see a real piece of cloth, but the veil can exist — in the “form of a veil” — in ornate tabernacle doors that “veil” the Real Presence of Christ.

Veiled Ark

Tabernacle veils come from our Jewish ancestors. Although not direct descendants of Jewish practices, tabernacle veils remind us of our faith history.

This tabernacle, originally from a side altar at St. Henry Catholic Church in St. Henry, Ohio, remains in the church, which was built in the late 19th century. While the tabernacle veil is pulled back, the cloth backing of the tabernacle is visible and shows the type of cloth used in the curtain. (Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

When the Israelites, under Moses, journeyed in the desert, they carried the Ark of the Covenant with them. The ark was where God revealed his presence. It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The ark was kept in a portable carrier called the mishkan. When they camped, the mishkan, meaning “residence,” and the ark inside it were placed in the Tent of Meeting. Both the tent and the ark were constructed according to specific directions from God. These included several veils to cover both ark and mishkan.

When Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem in the mid-10th century B.C., the ark was placed within “the Holy of Holies.” This was curtained off and only the high priest could enter there — once a year. The ark disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. When the city was rebuilt in 516, a new Temple was erected with a new Holy of Holies. This Temple was expanded under King Herod the Great, starting about 20 years before Christ’s birth.

When Jesus died on the cross, the Temple’s veil was torn in two (Mt 27:51). The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 and was never rebuilt.

Christians first celebrated the Eucharist in house churches, during Roman persecutions. After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 315, formal church buildings arose. Many started in former imperial buildings, such as governmental basilicas. Altars, with space for the reserved sacrament, were placed at one end.

Various physical elements served to indicate where the Blessed Sacrament was kept. For example, what we now call “baldachins” — canopies of various materials high over altars — served as figurative veils, creating a sacred space beneath. The baldachins were sometimes called “ciboria,” a term now used for vessels holding consecrated hosts. Sometimes these altar areas were curtained off during the consecration at Mass.

‘Little House’

Tabernacles developed gradually. The word “tabernacle” comes from the Latin tabernaculum meaning “little house.” The reserved sacrament moved from house shrines to basilicas gradually over the next centuries. Various vessels near the altar, sometimes in wall shrines, held the consecrated hosts. Some vessels were urns, but more common were cylindrical boxes or towers.

Doves and Canopies

By the fifth century, the Blessed Sacrament was often kept in a hollow dove made of precious metal. This was suspended over the altar, under a canopy, and served as a tabernacle. By the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the only requirement for a tabernacle that had formally developed was that a tabernacle could be locked.

During the Protestant Reformation of the late 15th century, it became common to place tabernacles in the altar’s back wall or within the altar itself. We would recognize these as tabernacles. In the 19th century, the Vatican forbade placing the Blessed Sacrament anywhere except in a tabernacle on the back high altar.

This placement or, later, use of a side altar, continued until liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Then tabernacles moved to new positions in churches and even to separate eucharistic chapels. Today, most tabernacles are in a central place in the sanctuary, behind the altar.

As for veils, in 1973, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, said that “the primary way of indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle is by veiling it. The presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle is to be shown by a veil or in another suitable way determined by the competent authority” (Roman Ritual: Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass, n. 11).

Tabernacle Doors

While veils are not as common today, ornate tabernacle doors serve as “suitable ways” to remind us of the sacred presence within. The General Instructions for the Roman Missal (2011) noted that that sanctuary “should be appropriately marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation. It should, moreover, be large enough to allow the Eucharist to be easily celebrated and seen” (n. 295).

Setting the sanctuary apart — as the Ark of the Covenant was set apart — also serves as a type of veiling. It creates a holy place to meet God and reminds us of God’s powerful presence among us. Moses knew that presence. Those who worshipped in the Temple knew it. And we know it too.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; sacredarchitecture.org; stmagdalen.org; sacredheartgallup.org; wcucatholic.org; vatican.va; usccb.org; and 30giorni.it.

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