One of the primary and most distinctive fixtures of any Catholic church is a box or cabinet, typically made of gold placed in the front and center of a church. The exact shape varies, but you will most often find a red vigil lamp lighted next to it. As Catholics, we call the box a tabernacle and it contains the “holy of holies,” Jesus present in the Eucharist.
The term comes from the Latin tabernaculum, a diminutive of taberna. Its meaning is therefore ‘abode’, the house of God by men. The tabernacle is a liturgical furnishing used to house the Eucharist outside of Mass. This provides a location where the Eucharist can be kept for the adoration of the faithful and for later use (e.g., distribution to the faithfulls)
The word tabernacle means “dwelling place” and refers to the “tent of meeting” that the Israelites built to facilitate their worship of God in the desert (Exodus 26). God commanded Moses’ brother Aaron, the chief priest, to offer sacrifice within the Tabernacle.
Symbolism/importance of the tabernacle in the catholic church
The use of a tabernacle in Catholic churches rests solely on the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the knowledge that Jesus himself is truly present under the appearances of bread (and wine). In other words, the tabernacle is not used in a symbolic way, to symbolize God’s presence among us, but in a real way (like the Tabernacle of the Old Testament) to house and protect the real presence of God in the Eucharist.
This is also why Catholics genuflect when passing the tabernacle. We do so in honor of the real presence of Christ present in the Eucharisticic bread reserved and protected in the tabernacle.
The tabernacle contains the Blessed Sacrament, the bread consecrated by the priest at Mass which is transformed into the Body of Christ. It is reserved in the tabernacle so that Holy Communion can be taken to the sick, but also so that people can pray in the presence of Jesus, who we believe remains there, body, blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread.
Near the tabernacle you will always see a lamp burning – symbolizing the living presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Tabernacle is the place where the Real Presence of Jesus dwells within the catholic Church. While the Consecrated Host has the appearance of Bread, It is the true Body of Jesus living among us in fulfillment of God's promise during the days of the Old Testament to come and make His dwelling among His people.
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