The Empty Tabernacle of Good Friday

By Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB 

Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He has provided spiritual direction for many men and women, including married couples, seminarians, consecrated religious, and priests. He is the co-author, with Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB, of Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love.

In my experience of the Triduum at Saint Vincent Archabbey, a particularly powerful part of it has been the empty Tabernacle. Following the painful moment at midnight on Holy Thursday when Jesus is taken away from us and the Tabernacle is left empty, my attention is repeatedly drawn to the gold tabernacle with its open door. Throughout the year, I have genuflected in front of that Tabernacle countless times. It normally has a light that always shines on it, in addition to the vigil lamp that is always lit to remind us of the Real Presence.  On Good Friday, though, there is no light and no lamp. The door is open and with its plain, empty, square interior it seems so dead and useless.

On the other days of the year I kneel before that Tabernacle and adore the Presence of Jesus. I speak to Him and I am consoled by His love for me. The space around the Tabernacle has a warmth and fullness to it. It is alive. Because I kneel before the Tabernacle when I speak to Jesus, I associate it so closely with Him. It is hard to see the Tabernacle apart from the Real Presence of Jesus that it (almost) always bears inside it.

On Good Friday, however, it is completely different. That Tabernacle is so dead and useless. I show it no reverence. I do not genuflect and I do not kneel. And many times, just to feel it more poignantly, I stand in front of it with a kind of defiance. I want to feel the emptiness of the absence of Jesus. I want to feel how empty our churches become without the Real Presence. I want to face the true ravages of Good Friday and Holy Saturday when that Presence was completely removed from us and from our world.

My attitude towards the empty Tabernacle softened one year as I reflected on the value of it. After all, why is it still there? Its purpose has ended. Its precious contents have been emptied out.  It only remains as a pathetic and depressing reminder of what once was but now is gone. So why is it still there? Of course it is there, because it is not only emptied out but it is ready to be filled.  It plays no role directly in the Good Friday liturgy and it is not mentioned in the rubrics as an object of particular attention or veneration, but remains as a bold sign of hope.  We have not thrown out our Tabernacles because we hope they will be filled again.

After that moment, I started looking at the Tabernacle differently. It has a certain boldness, remaining in the Church after its contents were emptied out. It has a certain hunger that stands open and longs to be filled again. It has a certain majesty as an object that once carried the Lord and longs to carry Him again. It teaches me how to remain open in my own emptiness, in my own poverty, and even in my own sinfulness. Even a person in mortal sin carries the hope of that Tabernacle, ready to be filled again.

From that time on, I have tried to learn from the Tabernacle how to hold open my own poverty and not fear to show the Lord my emptiness. Saint Therese of Lisieux once wrote in a letter to Mother Agnes, “All shall be for Him, all! And even when I have nothing to offer Him I will give Him that nothing.” That’s what the Tabernacle does. It gives its whole existence to God and even when it has been emptied out, it remains, giving Him its “nothing.” It is always tempting to cover ourselves up and make ourselves seem useful when, in fact, without Him we have nothing.  No matter how beautifully adorned the Tabernacle is, its most important quality is its empty interior that always stands ready in hope to receive the Lord.

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The need for spiritual direction—or the accompaniment of a spiritual guide—is becoming more prominent in a world where so many are suffering from so many wounds. With a harmonious integration of both timeless spiritual wisdom from the Catholic Church’s tradition of prayer and direction, and the insight of the psychological sciences, Fathers Thomas Acklin and Boniface Hicks offer a comprehensive guide for all who provide or seek spiritual direction. Spiritual Direction: A Guide for Sharing the Father’s Love fortifies priests, religious, and lay faithful who embrace the ministry of spiritual direction and accompany the wounded, assist men and women in hearing the voice of God, and model the love and mercy of the Father for the many who are seeking Him but do not know Him or have false images of Him.