Rev Edwin Gordon


Ark of the Old Covenant


In order to understand the reverence the Church gives to the Blessed Sacrament. 1t is helpful to examine the honor which the Chosen People paid to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. This contained the Covenant of God with his people and the promise of the Messiah. Because of this it was treated with great reverence and built in a special way, eventually enshrined in the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. 'The inner sanctuary he (Solomon) prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord; ... and he overlaid it with pure gold; ... and he drew chains of gold across in front of the inner sanctuary. ... Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold' (1 Kg 6: 19-22).


The heart of the Temple was the inner sanctuary, where rested the ark of the covenant containing the promise. It was to the inner sanctuary that Zechariah came when 'according to the custom of the priesthood it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense '(Lk 2:9). It is uncertain whether the original Ark of the Covenant was destroyed with the destruction of Solomon's temple in the year 586 B.C.


In every synagogue there was an ark containing the Pentateuch and, it would seem, the Prophets,  a reminder of the original Ark of the Covenant. This was preceded by steps, which symbolized the ascent of Mount Sinai, and emphasized the need for interior reverence before the special Presence of God.


Ark of the New Covenant


The transition from the Old Testament to the New came about when the Blessed Virgin Mary consented to be the mother of the Messiah: 'Be it done unto me according to thy word.' At that moment the Word of God was made flesh in the womb of Mary and she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. All the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled, and Mary truly became the Tabernacle of the Most High and the Ark of the New Covenant. At the birth of her Child she became the first monstrance, showing Christ to the world.


When our Lord came as the Messiah to read the scriptures in the synagogue, he took up the text from Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down: and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And he began to say to them,  "Today this scripture has been

fulfilled in your hearing." (Lk 4: 18-21).


The promises that were contained in the Ark were now fulfilled in our Lord's presence in the synagogue. That which had been present in promise and prophecy was now truly present in reality.  Our Lord continued to treat the Temple with reverence, so fulfilling the text:  "The zeal of thy house has consumed me." (Ps 68:10), and casting out "all who sold and bought in the temple," saying "It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers." (Mt 21: 12-13). Although our Lord was to condemn many of the man-made precepts of the Pharisees and scribes, and for instance cured the sick on the Sabbath day, nevertheless nowhere does he change this reverence for the Temple.


The Lamb who takes sin away


At the Last Supper Jesus offered himself as the one supreme sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. That sacrifice would be an abiding presence in which time and eternity meet, and fallen humanity is reconciled with God. This was to be both a mystery of faith and of love.  To the Corinthians, who had begun to turn the Holy Eucharist into an occasion of feasting and merry-making, St Paul insisted on the perennial truth:


For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed,  took bread, and, giving thanks, and said: "Take and eat; this is my body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of me.   In like manner, also the chalice, after he had supped, saying:  "This chalice is the new testament in my blood. This do, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.  For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice you shall show the death of the Lord, until he come." (1 Cor 11: 23-26).


This gift of Christ to his Church would be the new covenant, sealed with the blood of the Savior. Just as in the Old Testament the Chosen People had reverenced the Ark of the Covenant which contained the promises, so now the Church would reverence the Body and Blood of Christ, truly present under the outward appearance of bread and wine.


Christ's sacramental presence


This sacramental presence of Christ is brought out very clearly in the words of St John Chrysostom written in the 4th century:


It is not man who causes the oblation to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but it is Christ himself who was crucified for us.  The priest, representing Christ, stands and pronounces the words, but the power and the grace are from God.  "This is my Body," he said. This word transforms the oblations. And just as the words increase and multiply and fill the earth. were once spoken, but throughout all time give to our human nature the power of generation, so also the words "This is my Body",  once pronounced produce a perfect sacrifice at each table in the churches, from that day to this and from now to our Lord's second advent.  The sacrifice of Calvary is continually offered to the Father, and at the same time the pledge of the resurrection is offered to fallen man. In this sacrament man finds the fulfillment of all his highest ideals and longings. "He who comes to me will never go hungry, will never thirst."


Reverence for Christ's Body and Blood


Amidst the persecutions suffered by the early Church, and for many centuries afterwards, the sacrament was reserved

particularly for the sick, and the reality that it contained was witnessed by the reverence shown, even to the point of martyrdom, as for instance that of St Tarsicius, a young deacon who died that the Holy Eucharist might not be profaned.


This reverence is brought out very clearly in the penalties prescribed in the Regula Coenobialis of St Columbanus, as quoted

by Fr Bridgett in "A History of the Holy Eucharist in Great Britain".   The following is one of numerous penalties quoted:  "1f anyone fell into the water when carrying the Blessed Sacrament, as from a boat, bridge, or horse, he was to drink the water from the chrismal or pyx and to consume the particle. If this was a mere accident, one day's penance was prescribed, but if in wading through a river he had not taken care sufficient, then he was to do forty days penance." One might question the strictness of the penalties imposed, but at least they showed that the Sacred Host was recognized to be the Body and Blood of Christ, and reverenced accordingly.


The deeper appreciation of this Mystery of Faith was gradually to develop very much in line with the thought of Cardinal Newman

in his Development of Christian Doctrine. This development would take place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It would mean that while in the beginning the Holy Eucharist was kept especially for the sick, it also came to be reserved for adoration. This deeper adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was not accidental, but providential.


A tabernacle worthy of the Lord


Although there does not seem to be much evidence as to the place where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, by the twelfth century we have a directive of the Bishop of Paris:  "Therefore those are negligent who do not as yet have an ebony pyx or tabernacle where the Body of the Lord may be reserved with due honor." (Ita sunt negligentes quod nondum habent pyxidem eburneam, nec tabernaculum ubi reservetur cum honore Corpus DominI). This implies that the practice of a hanging pyx or a tabernacle already existed, and possibly had done so for many years.  On the continent of Europe it appears that the custom of having a fixed tabernacle as opposed to a hanging pyx developed much earlier than in England, where the practice of the hanging pyx to reserve the Blessed Sacrament spread quickly. We have a very impressive description of a hanging pyx in the great church of Durham, in the 11th century:


 "Within the said choir over the high altar did hang a rich and most sumptuous canopy, for the  Blessed Sacrament to hang within, which had two irons fastened in the French pyre [i.e. the high screen of Cain stone] very finely gilt, which held the canopy over the midst of the said high altar -that the pyx did hang in it that it could not move nor stir -whereon did stand a pelican, all of silver, upon the height of the said canopy, very finely gilded, giving her blood to her young ones in token that Christ did give his blood for the sins of die world. And die pyx wherein die Blessed Sacrament hung was of most pure gold, curiously wrought of goldsmith's work. And die white cloth that hung over the pyx was of very fine lawn, all embroidered and wrought about with gold and red silk. And four great and round knobs of gold, marvelous and cunningly wrought, with great tassels of gold and red silk hanging at them and at the four comers of the white lawn cloth. And the crook that hung within the cloth that to the pyx did hang on, was of gold, and the cords that did draw it up and down were made of fine white strong silk."


Nothing too good for the Eucharist


Similarly we have a record of the tabernacle donated by King Henry VI to Winchester College: a 'tabernacle of gold adorned with precious stones and with the images of the Holy Trinity and of the Blessed Virgin of crystal.' There are numerous other descriptions of such hanging pyxes or tabernacles.


The pre-reformation church at Fairford in Gloucestershire contains some very beautiful stained glass windows. Among these is a window over the chancel, showing the Transfiguration, with the Sacred Host on our Lord's breast, with the words 'IHS' and rays of light shining from it. In view of the subject matter it is quite possible that this was a Blessed Sacrament chapel.


Cardinal Pole, writing in 1555, in the reign of Queen Mary, insists that the tabernacle 'be raised and fixed in the middle of the high altar, if it can conveniently be done, so that it cannot easily be moved; otherwise in the most convenient and honorable place and nearest to the high altar which can be found.'


At the same time as Cardinal Pole was emphasizing the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament by putting it in a prominent position in the church, such as the main altar, the practice was also developing in Verona, Italy. Here the tabernacle was placed on the altar, and this practice was extended by St Charles Borromeo and Paul IV to Milan and Rome. Pope Paul V made this obligatory in all the churches of Rome, and recommended it for all other dioceses, but it was not until 1863 that the Sacred Congregation made it obligatory for the whole world.


The living heart of the Church


Vatican Council n in the third chapter of its Decree on the Liturgy declared that the tabernacle must be in the center of the middle altar, or in the center of a side altar, or in a prominent position where the Ordinary deems it more fitting. This leaves a certain flexibility to take into account the architectural features of the church, its size, etc., but it is clear that the tabernacle must be at least in a prominent position in the church. The words of Pope Paul VI in his Credo of the People of God are that the tabernacle is the living heart of the Church. This would imply that the tabernacle must be in the prominent and dignified position in the church. Of course in a large church or cathedral such a prominent and dignified position could well be a side chapel, which might also be more devotional.


Present-day Church practice


The general instructions of the Roman Missal in numbers 276 and 277 specify the rules governing the place where the tabernacle should be situated, as well as the instructions Inter Oecumenici (26 Sept 1964) and Eucharisticum Mysterium (25 May 1967). The new Code of Canon Law says:


The tabernacle in which the Blessed Eucharist is reserved should be sited in a distinguished place in the church or oratory, a place which is conspicuous, suitably adorned and conducive to prayer.  The tabernacle in which the Blessed Eucharist is habitually reserved is to be immovable, made of solid and non-transparent material: and so locked as to give the greatest security against any danger of profanation. (Canon 938)


The interpretation of these rules is directed. to emphasize the Blessed Sacrament as the living heart of the Church, to use once again the words of Pope Paul VI.  In the Holy Father's private oratory, where he celebrates Mass every day with small groups of priests, the tabernacle is in the center of the altar. Again, in the large chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in St Peter's, where Mass is daily celebrated, the tabernacle is in the center. Since, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the priest says Mass in persona Christi there does not appear to be any irreverence in his doing so in front of the tabernacle.


Corpus et Sanguis Christi


Another way in which adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was expressed resulted from the Feast of Corpus Christi, instituted in 1261 by Pope Urban IV. The prayer's and hymns in connection with the Holy Eucharist, particularly those of St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure are some of the most beautiful ever written, as for example the Adoro te Devote, the Pange Lingua and the prayer before holy communion, and many others. The feast of Corpus Christi was extended by Clement V and John XXII and came to include Corpus Christi processions.


The practice of Corpus Christi processions spread very rapidly from Liege in France to the whole of Christendom. In England by the 14th century every village and every town had its Corpus Christi procession, which inspired the people to a greater devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In the words of the Bishop of Lincoln in 1419:


"The Son of God having descended from the highest heavens for the redemption of mankind, when about to suffer death for us, and to ascend into heaven, left us a magnificent memorial of his surpassing love for us, the precious Sacrament of his Body and his Blood. From the devout veneration of this Body, until we all enjoy its beatific vision, we advance in grace and virtue, get pardon of our sins and help to. life eternal.  The beloved inhabitants of our City of Lincoln well knowing these and considering the power of the Sacrament to increase devotion and merit, have zealously and fervently kept up a devout custom, that at certain times of the year, namely, on the day of the solemnity of Corpus Christi, and the following Sunday, this precious Sacrament is carried in solemn procession, and with a numerous and devout attendance of priests and clerics, from some church in Wyford in the suburbs of our city to our cathedral church, in order that by the frequent sight of this Sacrament the devotion of the people may be increased, and they may more easily obtain pardon of their sins."


Re-kindling true devotion


When the Corpus Christi processions were banned in England by the reformers  the practice continued in many places of the children strewing flowers and herbs in memory of the time when our Lord was carried through the streets or fields.


It was nearly 300 years later that an Italian priest, Blessed Dominic Barberi, filled with zeal for the re-conversion of England, was able to revive the Corpus Christi processions. (It was in fact Blessed Dominic Barberi who was, in 1846, the first priest to say Mass after the Reformation in the parish of Nympsfield, of which I was the parish priest).


It is sad to say that although up to recent years most parishes in England had their Corpus Christi procession, now this is rarely the

case, in spite of the new Code of Canon Law which stresses:  "Wherever in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop it can be done, a procession through the streets is to be held, especially on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, as a public witness of veneration of the Blessed Sacrament."  (Canon 44).


In this article I have perhaps over-emphasized the situation in England, but as St Thomas Aquinas said on one occasion: "In order to come to the ocean of knowledge it is better to travel around  a little stream which brings you to that ocean." Perhaps if every country. were to examine seriously the history of its own eucharistic devotion, this would be of help in rekindling true devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.


Looking at God


The practice of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has been and is the source of sanctity for innumerable saints across the ages. St Teresa of Avila in her reforms was always delighted when the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in her new convents. In the foundation of Medina del Campo she expressed her wish that her nuns should adore the Blessed Sacrament and make reparation for the many irreverence's against the Eucharistic Lord. The Cure de Ars tells the story of an old man who was in the habit of staying in the church, and when he was asked what he did, replied: "I look at him and he looks at me." It is said of Fr Damien, who did so much for the lepers and who himself caught leprosy, that after he had built a chapel for them he used to spend hours before the Blessed Sacrament. The source of his strength in giving his life for the lepers was the Blessed Sacrament. St Therese of Lisieux

used to find great devotion in praying before the Blessed Sacrament; but love seeks union, and in her longing to receive our Lord in holy communion she wrote in her autobiography: "After all, our Lord doesn't come down every day just to wait there in gold ciborium, he has found a much better heaven for his resting-place; a Christian soul, made in his own image, the living temple of the Blessed Trinity.' St John of the Cross wrote that one act of this pure love does more good for the Church than all external activities. That is why St Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative nun, was declared patron the missions.


At the cutting edge of evangelization


In our own age we have the example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her nuns, who before beginning their work of ministering to the poorest of the poor and the dying, spend an hour adoring before the Blessed Sacrament as well as having Mass and the Office. They visit our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament in his Sacred Humanity, and then go out to visit him mystically present in. his suffering members.


The Holy Father has called us to make this last decade of the second millennium one of evangelization. It is no accident that the Age of Faith, which saw the rise of so many great cathedrals and abbeys throughout Christendom, and respect for the rule of law and the dignity of man, was also the age of great devotion to the Holy Eucharist. So too, in rekindling the faith and in evangelizing,

our strength must be the Holy Eucharist.


It is no wonder that the prayer taught to the children of Fatima is directly linked with the Blessed Sacrament:


'0 Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore thee profoundly: and I offer thee the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for all the outrages, indifferences and negligence by which he is offended: and through the infinite merits of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the intercession of the Immaculate Heart of Mary I pray for the conversion of sinners.'


In conclusion


The barriers of fear that have for so long divided the world are breaking up. This could lead either to the worship of Mammon and the pursuit of pleasure, or to a new age of faith, when people respect each other and the rule of law under the sovereignty of God.


This essay began with a description of the innermost sanctuary of the temple which contained the Ark of the Covenant, so it is appropriate to conclude it with the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the Temple (cf 47: 1-12). In this vision water came out of the sanctuary of the Temple, became a stream, and then a river, bringing health-giving waters, where fish abounded and fruit-bearing trees grew on its banks. The river made the stagnant waters fresh and went out into the ocean to make its waters wholesome. So it is from the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle that the living waters of sanctifying grace flow out to heal and restore. It is here that the laborers in God's great harvest of souls receive their nourishment and strength to be channels of his grace.


In the words of St John Fisher:  "If anyone should attentively consider the progress and the decline, and the reformation of life which have often occurred in the Church he will find that neglect or abuse of this sacrament has been the cause of decline; and, on the other hand, that faithful worship and devout frequentation of this sacrament have wonderfully contributed to progress and

reform. '


Father Edwin Gordon


First printed in Position Papers of Opus Dei 1991 in Ireland and Japan and later throughout the world.


Bio of Father Edwin Gordon


In spite of being a diabetic and having to take insulin shots daily, Father Edwin Gordon was ordained in 1962 and worked as a pastor for many years in England.  He is a graduate of Law and has written many previous articles for Homiletic Review.  He has also written a book called, "Upon this Rock" and "The Catechism of the Holy Rosary"  He has written for many other magazines and his views are much in demand. 


Father Edwin Gordon is now retired and totally blind.  He has elected to stay close to Our Lady for the rest of his life and has moved to Fatima.  He is now hearing confessions at the Capalina almost everyday and saying Mass for mostly the English speaking residence of Fatima at Sola De Marta.  Although blind now, he continues to serve Our Lord and Lady just as if he had eyes to see.