April 2, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
When I give tours of the church, I usually start in the back, and move my way toward the high altar. This entire space is built in such a way that the focus of the eye is always drawn to the altar. I begin with describing the women saints that adorn the front of the altar, then point to where Fr. Jardine is buried underneath the horn of the north steps. Before I can get to the rest of it, I’m often interrupted by some version of this question: “What is that box for?” The box in question is directly above the altar in the center, and in it, we keep the reserve sacrament, the leftover communion bread that was consecrated at a previous Mass. Today is the one day in the calendar when the Sacrament is not reserved. Normally, we would pay Jesus homage by bowing or genuflecting toward this holy place, perhaps catching a glimpse of the sanctuary lamp that burns as a reminder of his presence. But not today. The lamp has been extinguished, the doors thrown open, the tabernacle emptied, the sanctuary stripped. As Mary Magdalene said when faced with the empty tomb, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” The empty tabernacle declares to all what happened on this day: our Lord has died to save us from our sins.
The tabernacle, in the Western tradition, is, among other things, analogous to the Holy of Holies in Judaism. The Holy of Holies was the holiest of all places on earth for the Hebrew people. It was in the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was only in the Holy of Holies that God’s presence appeared. Once every year, the high priest, and no one else, lifted a corner of a curtain that shielded the Holy of Holies to go inside and make a blood offering for himself and for the sins of the people. The curtain kept God hidden; only the high priest could pass through the curtain once a year and be in the intimate presence of God.
What curtains do we have in our lives that keep God hidden? What curtains keep us separated from God?
It’s quite easy for us to see ourselves as defective and thus unworthy to be in God’s presence. Even those human beings who were blessed with good looks go through times of feeling physically unattractive – even ugly – and project these views on God, leaving us with the feeling that God feels just as disgusted with our bodies as we are. We see ourselves as “less than” in all sorts of ways, perhaps especially when we’re self-evaluating our prayer lives. In this way, our defectiveness becomes a curtain, keeping God hidden and far away. In the same way, we often erect a curtain between us and God when we throw in the towel because we’re sick and tired of repeating the same sins over and over again. Each of us has specific tendencies to sin – for some, it’s greed, for others it’s gluttony, for others it’s fornication. By God’s help, we will try to stop, but it’s likely that we’re going to continue to have the same tendency to sin tomorrow, 10 years from now, perhaps until the day we die. It’s easy to put up a nice, thick curtain between you and God and stop trying to resist that particular temptation altogether.
On this day so long ago, the curtain separating us from God was forever torn in two. The author of Hebrews says, “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Any good Jew would have been scandalized to hear that they might be able to intimately know God in the same way the high priest did – to enter into his presence. Just as the tearing of the curtain in the temple made the Holy of Holies visible, so that all could freely enter, so Jesus, whose flesh is torn open upon the cross, unveils the God of heaven so that all may enter in to relationship with Him. On that cross, God himself bowed his head and submitted to death, suffering for us. Veiled in flesh, God himself is torn open on the cross to remove anything that might inhibit us from coming into God’s presence. While all human beings are made in God’s image, the pure water that washed us at our baptism restored us all the more to the way we were supposed to be before Adam and Eve ate from that tree so long ago, and continues to give us the grace to see ourselves not as defective, but as beautiful and wonderfully made. The grace given to us at baptism continues to give us the strength we need to strive for holiness day in and day out and strive to resist committing those stubborn sins we continue to struggle with day after day.
Friends, let us give thanks to almighty God that Jesus set his passion, cross and death between his judgment and our souls. Let us give thanks that in Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Let us give thanks for the empty tabernacle, for on this day, our Lord has died to save us from our sins.
 John 20:13.
 https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2011/04/22/the-empty-tabernacle/. Accessed March 23, 2021.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 299.
 Hebrews 19b-22
 1979 BCP p. 489.
 Colossians 1:19-20.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!