The Tabernacle of the Heart; To Dwell in the Glory of God

The Power of the Father, compelled by His love,
Descended and dwelt in a virgin womb.
St Ephrem

“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

Dwelt… Dwelt in a virgin womb. Dwelt among us.

Various words are used to describe the way God dwelt among us. It has been rendered: God tabernacled among us. God pitched his tent among us. The Revised English version translates this verse more literally this way: “And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we gazed at his glory; glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The first time God pitched his tent among us is recorded in the book of Exodus. God had accompanied his people as they fled Egypt, dwelling among them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. For the Israelites who had spent 400 years in Egypt, culminating in the whole bitter fate of slavery, this new visible appearance of the presence of God to them must have been amazing. They had cried out for freedom and God had responded. And even more they hadn’t escaped Egypt like criminals breaking out of jail and on the run. No, the Lord was coming with them on the journey to the Promised Land.

In the wandering years as the Israelites made their way through the desert, Moses built at the Lord’s instruction a meeting tent outside the community. The tent-tabernacle-place of God’s dwelling was the center of the worship of Yahweh by the people of Israel from shortly after the exodus until it was replaced by Solomon’s temple around 960 BC. The tabernacle was filled with the glory of God. That glory was so radiant that when Moses left the meeting tent after having spoken with God, his face shone so brightly it had to be covered with a veil. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, remained in the tent.

Wouldn’t that be neat? To dwell in a space that was filled with the glory of God? To just stay there… Stay. Abide. Dwell.

God’s dwelling with the Israelites gave them a chance to dwell with him if they wanted. He was there. He was waiting.

When Solomon dedicated the Temple he had built, the glory of God filled it. “When Solomon finished praying, fire flashed down from heaven and burned up the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the glorious presence of the LORD filled the Temple” (2 Chronicles 7:1).

However, right before the exile into Babylon about 400 years, Ezekiel saw in a vision the glory of the Lord leaving his place above the cherubim of the ark in the Holy of Holies and exiting the temple. The Lord was leaving Jerusalem, opening it up to the invasion of its enemies.

As the faithful remnant was taken into exile in Babylon, God went with them to protect them. He was with Daniel, Ezekiel, Esther and the other believing exiles wherever they were in foreign lands. God dwelt with them, pitched his tent, so to speak, wherever they were to protect them, never leaving them utterly abandoned.

600 years later, John writes that the glory of God has come back, has pitched his tent among us once again in the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephrem’s image is powerful: God was compelled by his love for us—his love for us was so great that he couldn’t resist the power of what his love wanted to do…. To descend and dwell in a virgin’s womb. The word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.

When Jesus returned to heaven he left his glory on earth in the tabernacles of our Churches, where he continues to dwell. God had told Moses to fill a lamp with pure oil to burn perpetually in the Tabernacle or Meeting Tent to signify God’s presence. Today a sanctuary lamp continues to burn to signify that the Blessed Sacrament is presence, God’s glorious presence, the glory of God on earth.

God pitches his tent with you and me, wherever we are, wherever we need him. Longing to meet us, he hopes that we desire to meet him.

Teresa of Avila, reflecting on the state of her heart, this place where the Lord had pitched his tent, once prayed, “O my Lord, since it seems you have determined to save me, I beseech Your Majesty…don’t you think it would be good…if the inn where you have to dwell continually would not get so dirty?” Her famous book on mysticism The Interior Castle describes the lifelong spiritual journey by which we enter into seven mansions (also called dwelling places) which are stages to getting closer to God.

My heart wants to grow in hospitality toward this divine Loving Leader who wants to pitch his tent and abide with me. He who will go with me even in the humiliating and messy times of desert wandering and exile, who will speak with me and listen to me, who will pitch his tent in the tabernacle of my heart and fill me with the Spirit and the glory of God.

I want to be a Joshua who stays in the tent, surrounded with the glory of God, soaking in his presence, being transformed by it, loved and mentored and forgiven and recreated by it. And it is for this reason that I and so many seek out the Eucharist in the Mass and in adoration.

You are entirely a source of amazement,
From whatever side we may seek You:
You are close at hand, yet distant—
Who shall reach you?
St Ephrem, Faith 4:11

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