Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 14, 2010 – St. John’s
Our Gospel-passage today begins with people expressing wonder at the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. In those days, of course, there were no postcards or photographs at all, and probably very few drawings of the Temple, so that first-time pilgrims to the Holy City would have been struck with awe at the sight. It reminds me of how I felt, although I had seen many photos of it, when I was astonished and thrilled when decades ago I stood before the Taj Mahal, which remains the most beautiful building I have ever seen.
The Temple in Jerusalem which thrilled those people was the third one built on the site. The first one, built by King Solomon, was destroyed in 586 B.C.; the second, built when the Israelites returned from exile seventy years later, was not as grand as Solomon’s had been. Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great decided to rebuild the Temple, work that was still going on when Jesus walked this earth.
It was indeed a magnificent building. (Here are some reconstructions done by arachaeologists.) A contemporary said that it “lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye.” Gold covered the gates and much of the outer walls and gleamed so brightly that people had to turn their eyes away from it, as if from the sun. “To approaching strangers it appeared from afar like a snow-clad mountain, for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.” This is the Temple at which the people were exclaiming in awe.
But St. Luke has already prepared his readers for what Jesus says in response. For ten chapters of his Gospel, he described the slow but determined journey that Jesus and his disciples made toward Jerusalem. That is where the expected climax of his ministry was to take place, his “exodus,” as it is called in St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (Lk 9:31). Luke also relates Jesus’ words of grief over the city, and an earlier prediction of disaster: “How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings, and you refused me! Your temple will be abandoned” (Lk 13:34-35). And when he finally reaches the city, he breaks into tears in his sorrow that the city would be destroyed because they had failed “to recognize the time of your visitation” (Lk 19:41-44).
We should not be surprised, then, when Jesus says: “These things at which you are gazing–the day will come when not one stone will be left on another, but it will all be torn down.” That is, of course, what happened forty years after his death and resurrection when in the course of suppressing a rebellion, Roman armies, led by the future emperor Titus, totally destroyed the Temple so that all that was left was the western wall, known also as the “wailing wall.” One of the pillars of Jewish identity at the time, then, was destroyed, with tremendous effect on Judaism, with the synagogue replacing the Temple as the focus of Jewish worship. Six hundred years later, on the Temple Mount, was built the Muslim shrine known as the Golden Dome, and the whole area today is one of the places most sensitive for relations between Jews and Muslims.
There is your history-lesson for the week! What does it have to say to us? St. John’s Gospel reports a saying of Jesus, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). This claim probably played a part in the trial that ended with Jesus’ condemnation to death, because the building of a new temple was associated with the Messiah. St. John says that after the resurrection, the disciples remembered this saying of Jesus, and came to realize that he was speaking of “the temple of his body” that would be raised on the third day. And very soon the first Christians began to use building metaphors, especially Temple-metaphors, to describe themselves, a temple not made of stones, not made by hand. The stone the builders had thrown away as useless God had picked up from the scrapheap and made the cornerstone of his new temple, and as the risen Christ was that living stone so Christians had to allow themselves to be built up “into a spiritual building, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:4-6).
The new Temple, then, the one that Jesus builds every day, is not made of stones, but of living people, men and women who are alive with the life of the Risen Lord. While we come together in physical buildings like this one, around a physical altar, these are not the essential symbols and expressions of our worship. It is we, all of us, who are God’s new Temple in the Spirit; not only that, we, all of us, are the priests of this worship, and the spiritual sacrifices we offer, all of us, are the acts of witness and the acts of love that we perform in the world. If every Christian temple, every church, were to be destroyed, but a believing people remained, the new Temple, the new priesthood, would still exist, and they would be offering God the worship in spirit and in truth that he desires.
The old Temple was destroyed until not a stone remained upon a stone. The new Temple is being built now, stone-by-stone, as people are brought to believe in Christ. St. Augustine developed this them beautifully in one of his homilies:
What does it mean, “Be built up as living stones”? You are living if you believe, and if you believe, you are being made into the temple of God… Stones are being cut from the mountains by the hands of those who are preaching the truth; they are being squared so that they may enter into the eternal structure.
“Many stones are still in the hands of the builder,” he went on, and he urged them–he urges us–“not to fall from his hands so that they–so that we–can be finished and built into the structure of the temple” that God is building. That is what God is doing with us: shaping us, chiseling us, squaring us, until we resemble Christ, until we can fit smoothly with the cornerstone of God’s holy and eternal Temple.