What is the cylinder-shaped structure atop the Altar and why is it there? The metal structure atop the Altar is called the Tabernacle that contains the Reserved Sacrament — the Body and (less frequently) the Blood of our Blessed Lord which have been consecrated at a previous celebration of the Mass. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved both so that it can be taken to the sick and to foster contemplative prayer in the church.
Our particular tabernacle has two cherubim facing one another engraved on its sliding doors. To emphasize the holiness of what is contained behind the tabernacle’s doors, the cherubim are kneeling, their heads bowed, their faces solemnly expressing reverence. Each holds the Blessed Sacrament above his head; the cherubim on the Gospel side (the left door) holds the Host and paten; the cherubim on the Epistle side (right door) holds the Chalice.
The use of the tabernacle dates back to the early Church. One archeological dig of a church uncovered a tabernacle dating back to the 200s A. D. Early Church practice was for deacons to retrieve from tabernacles the Blessed Sacrament that had been consecrated by the bishop on Sundays and to distribute it to the surrounding churches as well as to administer to the sick and shut-ins.
The tabernacle has its historical antecedent in the Ark of the Covenant of the Old Testament. God commanded His Chosen people to make an ark of wood, overlaid with pure gold to house the two tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:10-21). God also instructed Moses to craft two cherubim facing one another on either end of the mercy seat above the tabernacle. God said to Moses “And there will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim …” (Exodus 25:22).
As Catholic Christians we believe in the Real Presence of our Blessed Lord in the bread and wine consecrated at the Mass. He is “made known to us in the breaking of bread” as He was to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on the Eve of that first Easter Day (St. Luke 24:25). The Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is therefore an objective reality (I Corninthians11: 23-29; St. John 6:48-58) and is His great gift to His Bride, the Church.
Our church, therefore, is more than a meeting hall or a building with pews or a stage; it is Holy Ground, and the Presence of our Lord is REALLY HERE and does not depend on our subjective feelings. This is what makes our Catholic Church in the Anglican tradition unique.
Whenever you see the Sanctuary Lamp (which hangs from the ceiling near the Gospel side of the Altar) lit, it means the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Tabernacle. It is, therefore, important that you genuflect whenever you enter or leave your pew, to show reverence to the Real Presence of our Blessed Lord upon the Altar.
We have the great privilege to commune with Him before the Reserved Sacrament in the Tabernacle on the Altar, whether in prayer or in contemplation, so that “when I awake up after thy likeness, I shall be satisfied.” (Psalm 17:16)
Fr. Gordon Hines+