Reverence for the Blessed Sacrament
By Fr Joe Babendreier
Many years ago when I was working as a priest in New York City, I had to help the parish priest prepare a confirmation ceremony. I was new to the parish.
We were expecting a large crowd of parents. I told the sacristan: “We need an extra ciborium full of hosts. Please, get it ready, and put it on the table with the offertory gifts.”
A ciborium is the sacred vessel where we put the hosts.
I was busy in the sacristy setting out the vestments for the bishop. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the sacristan going to the tabernacle and opening it. I was surprised that he would do such a thing. I was shocked when I saw him remove a ciborium from the tabernacle and walk down the aisle of the church.
I approached him from behind, stopped him, and asked: “What are you doing? Why are you taking that out of the tabernacle?” He seemed confused and said, “You told me to get an extra ciborium full of hosts and put it on the table with the offertory gifts. This is the only one we have.”
The consecrated host
With all his good intentions, that man had no idea what he was doing. He had no idea that the hosts in the tabernacle are completely different from the hosts that we place on the altar at the beginning of Mass. If you yourself are not sure what the difference is, then you need to know what I am about to tell you.
The hosts we put on the altar at the beginning of Mass look the same as the sacred hosts that a priest puts in the tabernacle after Holy Communion. They both look like little pieces of unleavened bread. But the sacred hosts are not bread.
Before Mass begins, the hosts in the ciborium—or the big host on the paten—is just bread. It’s flat because it is baked without yeast. It’s unleavened bread, the kind of bread Jesus used at the Last Supper (see Mt 26:17). But it’s just ordinary bread, made out of wheat flour.
During Mass, God changes the bread. Once God changes it, it’s not bread anymore. God makes the change when the priest says the words Jesus said at the Last Supper: “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my body.”
When the priest says those words, God changes the bread into the body of Christ. When the priest says, “This is the chalice of my blood”, God changes the wine into the blood of Christ. We call this moment the ‘consecration’. Because consecration has taken place, the hosts still look like bread but they have become the body of Christ.
The sacred hosts continue to be the body of Christ during Holy Communion. At Communion, Christians eat the body of Christ, to fulfil the words Jesus spoke in the Gospel: “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him” (Jn 6:56). If there are any sacred hosts left over after Communion, the priest has to put them in a ciborium and takes the ciborium to the tabernacle. Those sacred hosts continue to be the body of Christ while they are in the tabernacle.
Perhaps now you understand why I was following behind the sacristan at the church in New York. He was not carrying a vessel full of pieces of bread. He had Jesus Christ in his hands. He was carrying Jesus through the church. That’s why I had to stop him and take the ciborium back the tabernacle.
The priest places the Eucharist in the tabernacle after distributing Holy Communion during Mass. We often refer to the Eucharist kept in the tabernacle as the Blessed Sacrament.
All sacraments have two parts: what you can see and what you cannot see. For the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus himself is the “part” you cannot see. Jesus is hidden in the sacred host. We say that he is hidden under the appearances of bread because the sacred host continues to look like bread. But the sacred host is really Jesus.
Jesus is present in the tabernacle, literally present in the true sense of the word. And wherever the body of Christ is present, Jesus is present whole and entire. The Blessed Sacrament is Jesus. The same Jesus who was born in the stable at Bethlehem. The same Jesus, true God and true man, who died on the cross and rose from the dead. The same Jesus who is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of his Father.
There are several things the Church does to recognise Christ’s presence in the tabernacle. First of all, the priest always locks the door of the tabernacle. To let everyone know that Jesus is in the tabernacle, we are supposed to keep a light burning next to the tabernacle 24/7. If you see the light switched on, you know Jesus is present in the tabernacle.
During Mass, if the priest does not have enough hosts for all the people who want to go to Communion, he can use the sacred hosts that are in the tabernacle.
The tabernacle in each church or chapel looks different, so it is hard to describe what it looks like. Some are small, some big. Some ornate, covered with jewels and precious metals. Others are plain. Some are covered with a veil. Others are not. If you have any doubt about where the tabernacle is, ask someone at church who knows.
Wherever there is a tabernacle, remember that Jesus is waiting there for you. Go and spend time with Jesus in prayer. This devotion is so powerful that the Church grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, to those who spend thirty minutes in prayer before the tabernacle.
There are different ways of showing reverence to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The most important is to receive Holy Communion only when you are in the state of grace. If you have committed a mortal sin, first go to confession; then you can go to Communion.
Genuflecting is another sign of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Christians genuflect every time they pass in front of a tabernacle. This means bending your knee, going down on one knee. This is an act of faith and also an act of adoration. You believe that Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle. You adore Jesus because you believe he is the Son of God.
Where did this gesture come from? It goes back to St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “God raised him on high and gave him a name which is above every other name so that all creatures in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend their knee at the name of Jesus and every tongue should acclaim that Jesus Christ is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).
So next time you enter a church, look for the tabernacle and genuflect or bow deeply. You can even greet him with a few words of affection. Not aloud, but something personal, just between you and Jesus. For instance, you can say: “Jesus, my Jesus, be my Jesus now and forever.”
Jesus will see you, and he will hear you. He will be happy to see that you have come to be together with him. Jesus was once moved when a woman knelt at his feet. The same way Jesus praised her faith and spoke to her, he can praise your faith and say to you: “Go in peace!” (Lk 7:50).
Fr Joe is a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei. He is currently a director of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross.