The Empty Tabernacle

I learned at a young age about the importance and uniqueness of Good Friday. It was the only day of the year that my father worked only a half day: “Jesus died at 3:00 p.m., I came home early in honor of Him.” Each year we attended the Good Friday liturgy as a family, which was memorable for its nuances in the standard ritual, but it never captivated my imagination. It was not until I was an undergraduate that I discovered, thanks to a kind professor, a sort of Good Friday devotion to center my contemplation of the incomprehensible: the empty tabernacle.

It’s a striking image: the doors of the tabernacle are wide open, exposing a gaping void. Therein our Lord once dwelled in his body, blood, soul, and divinity, beckoning the wearied and burdened to throw their cares upon Him. On other occasions, before entering and exiting our pew, we did Him homage by genuflecting toward this abode, perhaps catching a glimpse of the sanctuary lamp that burned as a reminder of His presence. But not today. The lamp has been extinguished, the doors thrown open, the tabernacle emptied, the church stripped. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13) The empty tabernacle declares to all what happened on this day: our Lord has died to save us from our sins.

All morning the tabernacle lays open, for Jesus is no longer present there. He has given Himself over to cruel men who are leading Him to death. It’s a familiar but always fresh story: the trial and interrogation, the scourging, the jeering and spitting, the crowning of thorns, the hysteria of the crowds, the vacillations of Pilate, the slow march to Golgotha. There at high noon Jesus was nailed to a cross, the electric chair of ancient Rome, between two bandits. For three hours, His body was suspended from the hard wood, pouring out His blood for our salvation. Then, at the very moment that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple, the true Lamb of God cries out one final time and breathes His last.

Our Good Friday liturgy takes its start at this moment, as the priest prostrates himself in an act of mourning and sorrow. Our solemn prayers and recollections continue as the tabernacle remains open and empty. The previous night Jesus gave us His body and blood in the Eucharist so that, in communion with Him always, we might have life, and have it abundantly. Today we are reminded that the gift of the Eucharist is a real sacrifice that cost our Lord His life. There is no Mass – no sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice – because today we commemorate the actual sacrifice. The Mass applies the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice to our souls, but today in our grief, we instead relive Christ’s sacrifice along with Him.

       The Crucifixion by George Bellows (1923).

The drama of liturgical anamnesis – the mysterious reliving of past events in the present – reaches its height as we receive Holy Communion. Even though our Lord has died, He still provides for us, still longs to unite with us, still comes to us through the sacrament of His body and blood. Today, perhaps more than any other, “[t]he Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving” (Deus Caritas Est 13).

The Good Friday liturgy ends in silence, for we still mourn the death of our Lord. As we look around the barren sanctuary, the tabernacle remains open and empty, mirroring the state of our hearts. The Eucharist is the summit and source of Christian life, and in the tabernacle it awaits us. But today the opposite is the case: we await the return of the Lord to the tabernacle so that we can again eat the Bread of Life.

We must wait still longer. First, we have to accompany Christ spiritually on His final mission: His descent into hell to free the souls of the just who had gone before Him. As we continue our contemplation into Holy Saturday, the tabernacle is still open and empty, as Christ’s soul and divinity have temporarily separated from His body and blood. We cannot adore Him in the Eucharist now; He is present elsewhere. But He will return.

The empty tabernacle is the visual expression of the drama of the passion. On the third day, adorned with flowers and full of newly consecrated hosts from the Easter triumph, the restored tabernacle will point to the glory of the resurrection. God again will be fully present among us.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.