By Fr. Matthew Keller
If we look to the Old Testament Scriptures, we can see several instances when the Lord instructs Israel to hold a memorial of some significant event in God’s plan to restore fallen man. The most famous example is the Passover, the Paschal Sacrifice and Feast. The Passover, which is the memorial of the Israelites’ being freed from slavery in Egypt, was to be observed every year. The remembrance, however, was not as simple as mentally recalling that the event happened many centuries ago. Rather, the act of calling it to mind in some way made it a present reality. It is not that Israel was once again enslaved and needed to be freed by the Lord, but rather that the actual event of liberation was being applied to the present.
In the life of the Church, the same principle is accomplished in the celebration of the Mass, in which Christ’s once for all sacrifice on Calvary is made present by means of the Liturgy through all the ages. Jesus made this known to us at the last Supper.
Solemn Benediction is a memorial of another mysterious event in the saving work of Christ — the Transfiguration. The liturgical rites that surround it memorialize the scene on Mount Tabor.
The Church employs ritual in order to expose what is hidden. Our Lord is so very humble that He shows none of His glory in the Blessed Sacrament. However the whole Church worships our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by making manifest His majesty and Glory. Our Lord humbles himself to appear to be no more than bread and wine, but the Church shows her belief in His Real, Substantial Presence through acts of reverence and worship.
The monstrance is the implement in which the Eucharist is placed—or “demonstrated” as the name implies—for adoration. Most monstrances have several beams streaming forth from the Blessed Sacrament. This symbolism is taken from the Gospel account, where His face became radiant as the sun. It is no coincidence that the monstrance, too, looks like a large sun upon a stand. Christ is the true Sun, and the radiance of His face is depicted in the monstrance.
The Church requires four to six candles during Solemn Adoration. There was not only light streaming from the face of our Savior, but light surrounding them all. The candles evoke the light that filled the whole mountain, and those two lights, Moses and Elijah, that conversed with Him.
The Stand or “Tabor”
The platform upon which the monstrance sometimes rests is called a “tabor”. Some Tabernacles are designed for this purpose, with a tabor, a flat surface, on the top. This is taken directly from the Transfiguration, for the mountain upon which it happened is called Mount Tabor. Through the rites, Our Lord continues to show forth His Glory which was shown upon Mount Tabor in every Adoration chapel and at every Benediction.
Offering Incense is an act of worship. Our prayers and sacrifices rise up to God as does the smoke. But in Adoration, the smoke also symbolizes the great cloud that enveloped them on Mount Tabor, the cloud from which the voice of the Father spoke to them: “Listen to Him.”
In the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, Peter famously suggests that they build three “booths,” one for our Lord, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. No doubt Peter did not understand fully how our Lord would fulfill his request, but he word he uses is the same as for a tent — and for a tabernacle.
The word tabernaculum means dwelling-place. In the wilderness, the Israelites built the tabernacle, which in the desert was a tent. A tabernacle is often either modeled after the Ark of the Covenant, or is covered with a veil, which represents the tent in the wilderness, or both. Later, when the Temple, which also had a large veil inside, was built in Jerusalem, and the cloud of the Lord descended upon it, it was considered the new and improved “tent” — it was the dwelling-place of the Lord. Later, the One Who would refer to Himself as the new temple in John 2, would “become flesh and dwell [same as the word for the dwelling of the Lord in the tabernacle] among us.” Literally, the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us.
Peter’s request was granted — in the Blessed Sacrament. Peter proclaimed that the Lord’s presence is good (“It is good that we are here!”), and asked our Lord to remain with us in a “booth,” in a tabernacle. Our Lord waits for us in the tabernacle, as St. Peter requested, and comes forth “like a bridegroom,” and is worshiped in glory in the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
All these rites have a very specific purpose: to enable us to participate in that unique event in the Gospels where our Lord showed forth His heavenly glory. Our Glorious, risen Lord gives us access to that event in every rite of Adoration and Benediction.
In the Sacraments and in the Liturgy, it is Christ himself who acts through the ministry of priests. However, when the Solemn Benediction (Blessing of the people with the Eucharist exposed in a monstrance) occurs, the priest puts on a humeral veil. This is not to prevent him from touching the monstrance or the Blessed Sacrament, as if it would be improper — of course he is unworthy, but his hands have been consecrated for that very purpose. Rather, he veils his hands to show that it is not the priest who gives the blessing. In Benediction, it is our Lord Himself Who blesses directly. That is why it is such a solemn and holy moment in the ritual.
Fr. Matthew Keller is the rector at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, NM, and the founder of v8sforvocations.org