If you’re like me, fans of the Doctor Who series on the BBC have been filling your Facebook timeline with speculation about who will be the next eponymous “Doctor” in the series. If you’re like me, you also have no clue why this should matter, because you have never seen the show. Apparently the show is about an omniscient and ageless alien who travels through time in a 1960’s British police call box and generally tries to save the Universe. Does that plot sound familiar? It should. If you leave out the more fanciful elements, it’s basically the same thing we experience every time we go to Mass, but instead of the TARDIS, we have the tabernacle and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.
It’s such a shame that many churches don’t even have a high altar and even some that have one don’t have the veil over the tabernacle. It’s such a simple and yet profound reminder that when we celebrate the Mass we are truly out of all time. At the moment of the Agnus Dei, we are transported through time to the crucifixion itself, our Lord is pierced anew for our offenses, and the veil of the Sanctum Sanctorum is split from top to bottom once again.
The account of Josephus describes the entrance to the Temple of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time as being adorned with golden grapevines and there was a table with 12 loaves next to the inner veil leading to the Holy of Holies. The veil itself depicted the heavens and the earth and so not only are we united to the crucifixion with the parting of the veil during Mass, but also to the creation of the universe when God divided the firmament, and also to the end of the world when Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats. What an incredible miracle!
Along similar lines, on the Feast of the Visitation, we are also called to contemplate that the building of a church is literally a womb. Every day (save Good Friday) Christ is not only slain for our sins, but is also reborn in the consecration of the Eucharist. How joyous for the people of God that every day is the Nativity and the Passion all rolled into one! We go through the motions of no bells, no organ, no marking of time during the celebration of the Holy Triduum, but even in Ordinary Time, every Mass is a miraculous journey beyond the temporal realm into the eternal.
Even so, we hear stories about priests who–even today–are removing the veil from altars in the name of the often misguided “spirit of Vatican II.” It’s so sad that anyone would want to dismantle such a beautiful part of the liturgy and, indeed, of our faith. Can we go to heaven if we go to a parish without a high altar and a veil over the tabernacle? Probably yes. But does it deprive us of not just a reminder, but indeed to some degree also the reality of what is taking place? Absolutely. If people really understood what was taking place, perhaps they might approach the Mass with a little more reverence.