Project Canterbury

God With Us:
The Meaning of the Tabernacle

by Frank Weston, D.D.
Bishop of Zanzibar

[London and Milwaukee: Mowbray and Morehouse, 1920. 135pp]
pp 107-116


IN conclusion, let us once more face the main objection to the tabernacle. If God be Spirit, if we are to know Him within, if He is independent of place, space, and time, are we not wrong to associate His presence with a certain spot? Even granting that men must think in terms of locality, of space and time, ought we not to decrease, as far as possible, our dependence on special places?

I. If our thoughts and prayers at the tabernacle are addressed to Christ as Man, and as Man only, I answer, Yes. For in this case the tabernacle would be of use to novices in religion only, and injurious to spiritual growth. But if the Christ in His manhood there present is recognized as God, no harm is done to any soul greater than is done by any devotion performed in a specially consecrated spot. But the questions deserve a much wider answer. And I will endeavour to sum up the whole matter here.

2. Unless Pauline theology is wrong, God is engaged in drawing into Himself the whole creation. And in as far as creatures have been redeemed, by union with Christ, they are already in the new Christ-unity in which they serve to reveal the glory of the Godhead.

Thus the Christian Church already serves, in heaven and on earth, partially, in places dimly, to show forth God in Christ. And the bread and wine of the Sacrament, taken up by the Christ, are on a level different from the earthly creation. When God uses them as true symbols and efficacious signs of His presence, as forms under which Christ's manhood is with us, He is merely doing now, under terms of earth, what He is doing in the supernatural universe. He is, in the Incarnate Word, using creation as His garment. So that, strictly speaking, the sacrament is not of the earthly order. It belongs to the order of the Incarnation. It cannot, therefore, be classed with the old meeting-places of God with His people, named in the Old Testament. Much less may it be compared with man-made shrines and temples. It is a supernatural thing, in its essence. That it is visible is due to the circumstances of the redeemed creation.

That is to say, the sacrament no longer belongs to the creation that waits for unification in God; it is amongst the first fruits of creation in God, and is a means by which the rest of creation will reach Him.

3. And we shall see the meaning of this more easily if we face, reverently and honestly, the true notion of God's final self-revelation. The Bible makes it clear that whereas Christ has His own glory (or throne, as S. John calls it) as Head of the Church, He is also with His Father in the Father's glory (or throne); that the Father and He together are the heavenly Temple; and that the Lamb, Christ, alone is the Light of the heavenly Jerusalem, the bride. Which means that God is known to us only in and through the Eternal Word, His Image, and Utterance, and through the Word's manhood.

So also the principalities and powers in heavenly places know even now, through their vision of the Church, the manifold wisdom of God, which wisdom is revealed in His purpose of making all creation one in Christ.

It is, therefore, impossible for any man to know God fully, or to enjoy the Beatific Vision, unless he be one of the mystical body, and have God within Him, in Christ, through the Spirit; nor will he see God external to himself except as He is revealed in and through Christ's unified creation. The Beatific Vision is primarily a response to God's presence within us. And in so far as it involves vision of God external to us, it perceives Him as He is self-revealed in Christ and His creation. A pure, direct, external vision of God is impossible to man.

The Blessed Sacrament is, as it were, the first hint of our external vision of God the invisible, through Christ and His creation.

4. It is no objection to this view that the bread and wine are still real, decay, and become corrupt. The same objection applies to the human body, in which a man may have attained very close union with God. The external material vessel perishes: the idea it enshrined is eternally in the mind of God.

If we are to know God's mind, we must know it through its ideas; not as He knows them in Himself, but as they are intelligible to us. His mind revealed in creation is our goal; beyond that we confess Him unknowable. No man can reach the Father except by the way of Christ. And His idea of bread and wine, and of bread and wine taken up into His own manhood, is not, strictly speaking, dependent on its material appearance. For wherever God's mind is revealed there shall we perceive this notion, of which the sacrament is the visible, tangible expression.

5. In whatever sense, then, man knows God, as from without, he cannot escape God's mind and its notions capable of expression in created form. And, for the life of me, I cannot see why it is wrong to fix our eyes on the visible expression of one such notion in the sacrament, while claiming the right to perceive the underlying notion in the mind of God. If I may contemplate God's mind that contains the idea, why may I not contemplate the idea itself in visible form? God is one who expresses His manhood under visible forms in the sacrament. He is the goal of our souls. It is a matter of choice whether we isolate ourselves from all risible things, and contemplate Him apart from His activity; or whether we perceive Him in the visible signs of His activity. It is the same God. When I speak of God, I mean one who sees Himself capable of revelation under created form, whether material on earth or immaterial in heaven. And I do not modify the truth of God's nature by avoiding the tabernacle.

6. The attempt to isolate God from the sacrament must produce an unbalanced view of Him.

Rightly we isolate our notions of Him and His presence from sacred pillars, shrines, pictures, and the like, for they are man's natural means of realizing Him, common to more primitive minds. True, the bread and wine, as some Protestant theologians describe them in Holy Communion, are exactly analogous with sacred pillars, altars, shrines, and animal sacrifices: they are mere signs and symbols, in the most meagre sense possible, of a presence.

But the sacrament as Christ created it is nothing of the kind. It is God's own natural self-expression. He chose it, as we say, from all eternity; it is natural to Him. And while others may prefer to worship Him in isolation from the appearance of His natural self-expression, some of us prefer the more childlike, faithful way of accepting Him as indeed He is. God is manifest in the created thought of His own mind; a Father to whom no creature is foreign, since all come from His fatherly love, in order to become love's expression.

7. Thus we return to unity. God is One, and Creation is ideally one in Him and united with Him in His own manhood. God is: we do not say He was or He will be. He is, He is in Christ, He is in Creation and therefore in the Sacrament—and that in the eternal present. It is a mere detail, belonging to our present stage, that we are, here and now, bound to perceive this unity through earthly sense-channels, under its earthly forms of bread and wine.

The materialist among Christians is he who insists on isolating God from God's mind expressed and revealed. And this materialism is responsible for much of the ineffectiveness of the English Church. It conceives God as so far removed from Creation as to be dishonoured by association with it. And a result is that many Britons now see in Him a loveless Being, who might have stopped the war by a command issuing from His far-distant throne.

The anti-materialist among Christians is he who sees God as God really is, the Creative Love whose revelation of Himself is under created forms. Such a one is not perplexed by the fact that these forms are, for the present, visible in material shape. And, when he meets one of these appearances, he does not rest in the visible and material appearance: he perceives God, whose nature it is so to reveal Himself. Thus he sees things as a whole, because he sees them in God. And he knows that God in Christ suffers and endures within His people.

8. To discover God's meaning for man, we first try to imagine man apart from sin's destroying influences. We form an idea of man as God intended him to be. Christ shows it to us. Can we not make the same effort of imagination regarding the Church? Cannot we forget East and West, Roman and Anglican, Church and Dissent?

In any case we know the ideal. Here on earth is a vast brotherhood of men and women, members of Christ's manhood, bone of His bone, flesh of His Flesh, soul of His Soul, filled with His Holy Spirit, in whom God the Blessed Trinity lives, loves, and is loved. They perceive God external to them in Christ: some realizing Him chiefly in the family of the saints, some in His mystical presence with them, some in sacramental presence, the whole body thus unifying the three visions in one corporate, threefold vision; while not a few individuals learn to value the whole threefold vision, having minds more balanced, perhaps, than the multitudes who develop more freely on one side than another.

This vast brotherhood is in the world, the first-fruits of the race to God; not a separate kingdom; having no official caste, but possessed of a ministry to which are entrusted God's authority and the body’s corporate, official action, a ministry in all other respects of the people and with the people. And in this brotherhood is extended and manifested the glorious humanity of the Eternal Word, Jesus, Son of Mary, which is also communicated to all its members in sacramental rites. And in and through the humanity is revealed the one creative Love—God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

9. Is this vision true or false?

If it be false, there is no God except the Absolute. If it be true, I must be allowed to fall down and worship Him in the Blessed Sacrament, at the tabernacle. For His Name is Emmanuel—God with us. His tabernacle is with men. He is ever to be adored. And they take upon themselves a most tremendous responsibility who rule that the Blessed Sacrament is, by God’s will, isolated from that unity of redeemed creatures in which God reveals himself.

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