Tent of Meeting
It was a memorable moment, this week, to see the Shrine Church in Walsingham able to open its doors for private prayer, and the smiles of the Priest Administrator as he turned the key says it all. I know that many people have loved to take part in the live streaming of Shrine Prayers at 6pm every day, although this year we shall miss out on our annual pilgrimage from South Wales. At the heart of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is the Holy House of Nazareth, a replica of that home where Mary lived, and in which she was greeted by the angel as highly favoured, and shown to be a loving servant of God as she embraced his plans for her and the world.
Many of us have enjoyed being able to open up our church buildings over the last few weeks, and throughout the months of lockdown there has been much discussion about the purpose of church buildings – after all, you don’t need to go to a church building to pray, do you? Of course, you don’t!
I’m often uncomfortable by the term ‘going to church’ (although I have used and do use it myself) and the fact that the word ‘church’ has been used and confused for both the people and a stone structure doesn’t help. Perhaps, we need to think more of our buildings as being ‘the house of the church’, a place where the church gathers, a shared space, a meeting point with one another and with God – as together we celebrate the Eucharist and other celebrations, physically present to one another.
Who would live in a house live this?
Like any house or home, the building is almost an extension of who dwells there, and so when we peruse particular church buildings it can tell us so much about the community which gathers there, and that’s no different for St Mary’s. Wander through St Mary’s Church and you’ll find the clues of what kind of people live in a house like this.
At the heart of many a ‘house of the church’ is the Tabernacle, where the abiding presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament dwells. Just as the Shrine Church at Walsingham is home to another house, the Holy House of Nazareth, so too our church buildings are home to another house – the Tabernacle – in which is placed the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
Since we have been allowed to open for private prayer, here at St Mary’s we have opened not just the doors of the church but the doors of the tabernacle. Even though we cannot share in the Eucharist of the Lord we are drawn into his Eucharistic presence, and the ‘house of the church’ becomes, once again, a meeting point with the Divine.
The Tent of Meeting
I love the litanies of the church, and the litanies of Mary are particularly beautiful as we move to the gentle rhythm of their beating prayer. One of Mary’s titles, tripped off the tongue in these litanies, is ‘Tabernacle of the Lord.’ Her own body becomes a Shrine for Jesus, a dwelling place of the Lord, a tent of meeting, a tabernacle.
We can only delve into the depths of what ‘Tabernacle’ means through our Jewish heritage and the life of the Old Testament. As the liberated People of Israel dawdled in the desert for four decades, they stopped along the way to pitch camp and erect their tents. At the heart of their camp and the most important tent was the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, in which was placed the Ark of the Covenant, the assurance of God’s presence, the place where he dwelt among them within the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 25–31 and 35–40)
Perhaps it’s no accident that the chapels in our churches known as the Lady Chapel often, too, serve as our Blessed Sacrament Chapels. In fact, on the front of the Tabernacle here at St Mary’s is a beautiful painting of the Annunciation, that moment of Mary’s Yes, the moment of the Incarnation, when Jesus takes flesh of the Virgin Mary, becomes present within her, creating a Tabernacle of the Lord.
And so, during these times of restrictions, the doors of ‘the house of the church’ and the doors of the Tabernacle are opened wide. We are drawn into the presence of God and one another, discovering that God is before and above us, around and within us, praying that we too may be a worthy dwelling place for the Lord, a Tent of Meeting, a Tabernacle, that place of encounter with Jesus who has come to live among us.
At the moment, we are open each day: Sunday at 11am, Monday to Friday at 6pm, Saturday at 11am for private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.