Up Front and Personal

Where Is God When the Tabernacle Is Empty?

By Veronica Szczygiel

On Holy Thursday, I kneeled with the congregation as the priest and a long procession of altar servers moved the Holy Eucharist from the main tabernacle to the side altar, signaling the beginning of Jesus’ passion and death. I usually follow the procession with my eyes, but this time, I peered intently at the main tabernacle, the door fully ajar, revealing nothing inside. I never realized how empty it looked without a ciborium. I felt an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, as if God were no longer with us.

I felt similar emotions as I watched news coverage of the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning and later the Easter massacres in Sri Lanka. Was God still there in the destroyed cathedral? At the bomb scene? Was He still with us?

Believers and nonbelievers have long debated the existence of God, but the idea of existence is distinct from the idea of presence. Catholics in particular believe that God is fully present in the Eucharist, that the bread becomes His body and the wine His blood. This fullness of presence is comforting, yet difficult to grasp; faith, and its many unexplainable complexities, is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage to believe in something you cannot see, as Jesus had explained to Thomas the Apostle.

As I peered at the sudden emptiness of the tabernacle, my feelings of abandonment grew. I pondered how this image of a void was a perfect analogy for the state of our world. We live in a Godless society. People are driven by desires, ambition, and greed to attain goals of being best, most successful, most popular, most powerful. Chasing celebrity and money may seem like worthwhile goals at first but quickly lead to feelings of emptiness, driving the person to seek out more.

While tallying up popularity may be thrilling initially, these feelings inevitably turn into anxiety, jealousy, and a measuring stick for self-worth. Our secularized society believes that “likes,” designer clothing, fancy technology, prestige, and money are fulfilling; but in fact, we are simply staring at an empty tabernacle, trying to find meaning in things that are meaningless.

The snap of the wooden crotalus (clackers) brought me back to reality on Holy Thursday. I knew deep down that God is indeed with us, always. In times of tragedy when it seems like He isn’t, we have to look harder. That’s the beauty of faith. When feelings of desolation overwhelm us, we have to dig deeper to attain the truth. It’s like when Mary Magdalene and her female companions found the empty tomb; they must have felt that same feeling of abandonment I did. But upon further reckoning, they must have also felt thrilled to realize the truth: there was hope. Jesus was resurrected. He is here and fully present.

Veronica Szczygiel, who lives in Greenpoint, is an English teacher at Marymount School of New York and a doctoral student at Fordham University.

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