What is Jesus doing in the tabernacle? The Bible’s answer
There’s actually a figure from the Old Testament who gives us a clue …
Somewhere, in one of his numerous books, the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft asks this question: “What is Jesus doing in heaven right now?” The answer is classic Kreeft, at once pithy and profound: “Praying for you.” The only real way to improve upon Kreeft’s answer is simply to draw a further inference: If Christ is praying for us right now in heaven, then he is also praying for us right now in the tabernacles of the Catholic churches on earth.We are sometimes tempted to think of the Eucharist as something holy yet inert, kind of like Sleeping Beauty. But that is incorrect; we should strive to change our habits of thought in this regard. To enter into the presence of the Eucharist is, instead, to enter into the presence of a Person who knows us and is praying for us at that very moment. Christ’s prophetic words about the Temple in Jerusalem find their fulfillment in your local parish church: “My house shall be a house of prayer” (Luke 19:46).
Christ never ceases praying for each of us before God the Father, whether on earth or in heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this point in #662, “Christ permanently exercises his priesthood, for he ‘always lives to make intercession’ for ‘those who draw near to God through him.’” Again, let that thought sink in: Christ doesn’t stop praying for us. Ever.
The need for someone like this, someone who loves us and literally never stops asking God for good things for us, is revealed even in the Old Testament. In Exodus 33:7-11, the intimate prayer of Moses with God is described. A designated place for prayer, a “tent of meeting,” was set up outside of the Israelite camp. As Moses would enter this tent, a “column of cloud” would descend upon it, signaling the presence of the Lord, to whom Moses would then speak “face to face, as one man speaks to another.” With their intercessor standing before God, the Israelites would then begin to pray “at the entrance of their own tents.”
Yet the Sacred Scriptures include one additional detail, one that foreshadows the unceasing prayer of Christ: Although the prayer of Moses would eventually end, and he would return to camp, his young assistant Joshua “would not move out of the tent.” In the abiding presence of Joshua there is a suggestion that intercession to God on our behalf should not actually come to an end. While we exist, it is fitting that our existence should be lifted to God in prayer. It is fitting that anytime we pray—whether “at the entrance to our tent,” or anywhere else—our intercessor should be standing before God.
But we can dig deeper still. Why is it fitting to have an intercessor before God as we pray? Or, putting the question back in terms of the story from Exodus, why did the Israelites rise and pray at the entrance of their own tents as Moses prayed? Why did that somehow seem like the right time for personal prayer? Surely it was because of that “column of cloud” that indicated the special presence of God. While the people might have known in some abstract way that God was always present to them, the cloud was a tangible reminder, a summons to prayer. In this sense, the prayer of Moses enabled the people’s prayer. His prayer called down the presence of God in their midst, prompting them to pray.
Yet what is only prefigured in Moses and Joshua is fulfilled in Christ. Christ’s unceasing prayer before God the Father is truly what enables our own prayer. In praying, Christ gives us the gift of prayer.
How does Christ do this? How does he give us the gift of prayer? Again, the presence of God is the key. We can say that Moses “made God present” to the people in a visible but sporadic way through the column of cloud that descended upon the tent of meeting. But Christ makes God present for us in a lasting and personal way by unceasingly asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Christ is the mediator “who assures us of the permanent outpouring of the Holy Spirit”
The Holy Spirit is the fire Christ wishes to cast upon the earth (Luke 12:49), the one who teaches us to pray and unites us to Christ. In receiving the Holy Spirit, we receive the gift of prayer at its very source, God himself.