Question by Eric Akovi:
My Lord, I know that symbols play a vital role in communicating spiritual insights and are also vital in worship. Against this background, why is the monstrance that is used in adoration mostly designed in the form of radiations emanating from a spherical source but not designed to take the form of the Ark of the Covenant since that is the only specification God gave in the bible so that his presence will dwell among his people?
Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu’s response
Let us begin by establishing what the ark of the covenant was. The ark of the covenant was a wooden box, covered with gold and fitted with rings through which carrying rods could be placed. The functional purpose of the ark was as a simple container for holy objects.
The tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed inside it (Deut 10:1-5). Other notable items included in the ark were a sample of the manna of the wilderness and Aaron’s budding staff (see Heb 9:4-5). Though small, this box-like container was one of the most potent images of God’s presence during the early Old Testament period.
The ark of the covenant was normally stored in the tabernacle, which was God’s symbolic home on earth.
According to Exodus 26 and 36, the tabernacle was a portable temple. It was made of wooden frames put together to form a rectangular building. Indeed, the ark was an integral part of the tabernacle structure and was normally kept in the holiest place (Ex 40:3).
The ark of the covenant was placed behind the curtain in the tabernacle, in the holiest place. The Table of Presence Bread and the Altar of Incense were also here. In the tabernacle, the ark was understood to be the throne or the footstool to the throne of God (2 Kings 19:15).
The ark was the symbol of God’s very presence on earth. The portable tabernacle and the portable throne of God (the ark) were significant elements of the Israelites’ faith in the wilderness. Under Moses, Israel came to worship a unique God.
God was a righteous and living God among the unreliable and dead gods of the Near East. The tabernacle delivers a message that the Lord God was first worshipped in the desert and that the cultic institutions and the formation of the state find their origin under Moses in the desert. Although worship at other places was not excluded, the tabernacle or the ark of the covenant was the official place and the heart of the Israelites’ communal life.
The ark served two important purposes during the history of early Israel. During the wilderness wanderings, when the people of God were on the march, the tabernacle was packed away and the ark led the way, representing God’s leadership of the tribes as they made their way towards the Promised Land (Num 10:35-36). This use of the ark is closely tied to the second purpose. The ark was often taken by the army as it engaged in battle with foreign foes. It represented the presence of the divine warrior with the army.
In the course of time, the ark disappeared. It is not certain precisely when and how the ark was lost; the Bible is silent on this matter. In any case, Jeremiah spoke against overconfidence in “the ark of the covenant”. The ark’s presence in the temple gave people a false sense of security about God’s permanent presence in their midst. Jeremiah declared that people would no longer say “the ark of the covenant of Yahweh” (Jer 3:16).
They would no longer remember the ark, visit it, or make it again. It appears that the ark was not rebuilt for the Second Temple. There is no mention of the ark anywhere in Ezekiel’s blueprint for the new temple (Ezekiel 40-48). The tabernacle also disappeared and was replaced by the temple during Solomon’s era. When the Israelites created a monarchy, they abandoned the nomadic lifestyle and no longer needed a portable temple. The absence of the tabernacle with the temple is supported by 1 Chr 13:2-6, which describes David bringing the ark up to Jerusalem without mentioning the tabernacle.
We now come back to the question posed by Eric. He wants to know why the monstrance that we use today is not shaped like the ark of the covenant, which symbolized God’s presence. The monstrance is the sacred vessel used for exposing the Blessed Sacrament for veneration, as during solemn Benediction or other ceremonies of Eucharistic devotion. It has a wide base, a stem with a knob, and a glass enclosure through which the Host (in its lunette) may be viewed. The enclosure is usually framed with ornamental rays of silver or gold.
I would like to make the following comments in response to Eric’s question. First, the ark of the covenant, as we have seen, represented God’s presence for the Israelites during their sojourn in the desert. However, after the Israelites settled down in the Promised Land and built the Temple, the ark of the covenant and tabernacle in which it was kept both disappeared and were replaced by the Temple.
Moreover, we should take note of Jeremiah’s complaint that the presence of the ark in the temple gave people a false sense of security about God’s permanent presence in their midst. If it was not deemed necessary to have the ark once the Temple was built, why should we, in the new dispensation, go for something abandoned in the old?
Second, we should look at what the monstrance is intended to achieve.
Expressions of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist have developed over time. One such development was the introduction of Eucharistic adoration outside of Mass and outside of the tabernacle. To facilitate this new devotion, a liturgical vessel called a “monstrance” was invented.
Monstrance comes from the Latin word monstrance, meaning “to show”. The purpose of the monstrance is to put on display a consecrated Host for those present to adore and venerate. The development of the monstrance can be traced back to the 13th century when Eucharistic processions rose in popularity connected to the new feast of Corpus Christi. At first, the Eucharist was carried in these processions in a closed ciborium (gold container) and it was not until later that the ciborium used in the procession was elongated and included a clear section containing a single Host.
First used in France and Germany in the 14th century, when popular devotion to the Blessed Sacrament developed, monstrances were modeled after pyxes or reliquaries, sacred vessels for transporting the host or relics. The host was shown in a glass cylinder mounted on a base and surmounted by some sort of a metal crown. In the 16th century, the monstrance took its present shape: a circular pane of glass set in a cross or surrounded with metal rays. The host is placed in a holder called a lunette, which fits into an opening behind the glass.
The monstrance is meant to highlight and draw attention to the Body of Christ, the Word of God made man (John 1:1,14), Christ who is Emmanuel, “God with us” (Matt 1:23). He is also the king of kings, present in a real and substantial way under the appearance of bread.
This is why a monstrance is typically gold and ornamented in a special way, in recognition of the divine mystery it holds and reveals. Often a monstrance has something like rays of light coming out because it symbolizes the light of Christ. We should also note that this is entirely biblical, as Christ is referred to in the New Testament on many occasions as the light or the light of the world (cf. John 1:4,7,8,9;3:19;9:5; 12:35, 36, 46; 1 John 2:8).
In the light of all this, it seems to me that the monstrance, on biblical, pragmatic and aesthetic grounds, fulfills its aim of showing the Body of Christ in a fitting manner to the world; it does this better than anything modeled along the lines of the ark of the covenant would do.
PUBLISHER: ADM NEWS