The Tabernacle of Moses: The Dedication of the Abbey Church

We celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the abbey church as a symbol of being ourselves temples of God, together the place where He is worshiped in spirit and in truth. The very architecture of a church tells a mystical story of Christ's love for his church/

In our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard St. Stephen say, “Our ancestors had the tent of testimony in the desert just as the One who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern he had seen.” The idea that the tabernacle, or tent of testimony as it is called here, was constructed by Moses according to the model shown him on Sinai, is one we meet elsewhere in the New Testament. In the letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul writes, “[The Jews] worship in a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, as Moses was warned when he was about to erect the tabernacle. For He says, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’”

What does this mean? Did Moses see schematics, an architectural blueprint of the tent? Or was it conveyed to him in some other way? Let’s put a pin in that question, as they say, and come back to it in a moment.

Recall that in the beginning when Adam first beheld his wife, he said under God’s inspiration, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken. That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Now, St. Paul gives his own inspired interpretation of this to the Ephesians, that the man and woman coming together is a great sacrament, or mystery, that refers to Christ and the Church.

In other words, Adam beheld in the making of Eve and his marriage to her the eventual incarnation of the Son of God and His union with the Church. This is the literal sense of this passage, St. Thomas assures us, first pertaining to Christ and then to every other married man on account of Christ. The first man saw in prophecy that God would become flesh, and he saw this symbolized in the innocent bodies of himself and Eve, but he knew the fulfillment belonged to Christ. Now, as Adam was to Eve, so Moses was to the tabernacle. How?

Moses constructed the tent of testimony according to a pattern that was shown him on the mountain, and the letter to the Hebrews assures us this all referred to Christ. Was that pattern simply what was explained to him about dimensions of the ark of the covenant, the table, the lampstand, the veils, the altar of holocausts, the vestments, the altar of incense, and so on? This is what some commentators think.

But no. Moses was the greatest of all the Old Testament prophets. He spoke to God face to face, scripture says, as one man speaks to another. God testified that what He would say in riddles to others He said plainly to Moses, and He confirmed His words to Moses with signs and wonders the likes and number of which no other prophet would accomplish. The prophet Ezekiel had seen a heavenly temple in a sensible vision; but Moses was a greater prophet, and so the pattern for the tent which he saw was in a higher form, an intellectual vision. St. Augustine, and St. Thomas with him, held that Moses, like St. Paul, was caught up to the third heaven and saw the essence of God, the Beatific Vision. It is impossible that in that vision Moses did not himself behold the union between God and man in Christ Jesus. God’s preferred method is to share His goodness with creatures and ennoble them by making them true causes, and in this case a knowing cause, one that caused the tabernacle to exist with knowledge of what was being prophesied.

But here there is a problem. When St. Paul was caught up into the third heaven and saw the vision of God’s essence, he tells the Corinthians that he heard words it is not lawful for man to speak. What this means is that the nature of God is incomprehensible. For all that we love Him, we have no idea what God is. And it is not merely that we do not know what God’s nature is; there is no likeness to it. No word can fully encompass it except the eternal Word, which our minds cannot generate or conceive. And so, although the vision of God makes man supremely happy, there is simply no way to talk about it or describe it afterwards, except to say that it happened.

Thus, although Moses saw God’s essence, and in that vision beheld the future incarnation of Christ and His salvific mission, this was something he literally could not communicate to anyone. And yet, what he knew, he also had to convey to the Israelites in order to give them something in which to place their faith. And so, yes, the pattern he was shown—and it is a verb of seeing that is used by scripture—the pattern he saw, though not with his eyes, was in the vision of God, it nevertheless required God Himself speaking to Moses audibly and describing in human words all the details of the tabernacle appurtenances for Moses to be able to translate that vision to the Israelites. God gave him the interpretative key that connected the most sublime revelation with the future incarnation of the Son of God.

St. Peter says today, “Come to Him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What was the interpretative key for Moses is the same key for us. Christ is the center and apex of all things, and through baptism we are Christ; Christ is a living stone, and we are living stones. Inasmuch as the Israelite place for worship foreshadowed the perfect sacrifice yet to come in all its individual aspects, so also our place for worship proclaims our faith in that sacrifice already accomplished, and accomplished again at every sacrifice of the Mass. And our participation in it makes us living stones hewn and chiseled into a spiritual edifice, that Church for which God became man and died on the cross. What was once in manner earthly is here heavenly.

Here the consecratory chrism on walls and altar bespeaks the anointing of Christ and His Church by the Holy Spirit. Here incense signifies their adoration and prayer. Here the chant echoes the unceasing angelic chorus. Here the confessionals impart what we heard in the Gospel: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And whereas in Old Testament worship the sacrifice of flesh was offered outside the building to signify that its power could never really penetrate to the holy of holies, here the flesh of God is offered in the sanctuary itself to signify that it has already been received with pleasure and satisfaction.

Long ago Moses saw for a brief time what he now sees forever so that we could have faith now and hope to join him in that everlasting vision. We celebrate the dedication of this building as a symbol of being ourselves temples of God, together the place where He is worshiped in spirit and in truth. Thus we are ever more deeply fashioned into the faithful and loving spouse of Christ Jesus our Lord, the One foretold by the tabernacle of Moses, the fulfillment of all prophecy, and the reward of all the saints.

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