Mar 7, 2015

3rd Sunday of Lent - Sacred space

What really pushes your buttons?  What makes you angry?  What do I feel passionate about that I would defend with all my might? 

Maybe these are questions that we don’t often consciously think about until that moment comes when we’re pushed over the edge or when we can’t help but go into a defensive posture.  It might be a certain political or religious opinion. Such passion is good but when it leads to marked hostility and division, it’s simply gone too far.  We will fight tooth and nail over our entrenched sense of being right.  Or it certainly could be your children.  If one of your children is harmed or put in danger any good parent would immediately come to their defense.  Don’t stand between a baby bear and mother bear!

In our Gospel for this third Sunday of Lent we see Jesus in a rare display of anger. It’s not the picture of Jesus we often see.  His display of attack against the Pharisees aside, a kind of war of words, the Jesus of the Gospels is far more a man of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, healing, and a preacher of God’s word – a prophet of the good news of God’s mercy. Yet, the anger Jesus displays in this Gospel is not simply unfocused rage.  It is anger in the mode of the prophets of old who railed against injustice, blasphemy, and idolatry.

Yet, being as thoroughly Jewish as he was Jesus well knew the centrality of the Temple to the ancient Jewish people.  Temple worship was at the heart of their religious identity and a physical sign of their preeminent honor for Yahweh. All roads lead to Jerusalem and the Temple mount was where God dwelled among his people.  It was sacred ground and the rituals and laws protecting it were absolute.

Our first reading taken from the Book of Exodus 20 in the familiar Law of Sinai, the Ten Commandments, we hear of that absolute Law given by God to a people who were called to live in communion with one another.  Here God offers these unique chosen people a new and personal relationship with the true living God.  Unlike the gods of the pagans who only demanded worship, this living God invites and promises a new and unbroken Covenant. These commands became a kind of blueprint for a new life with God and our neighbor.

Within the sacred ritual of the Temple, that covenant was forever remembered and it became the place where the assembly would offer sacrifice on behalf of their sins in a constant reminder of this eternal relationship with God. So what was Jesus so fired-up about?  The selling of animals for sacrifice and the exchange of coins by travelers seeking to use appropriate coins in the Temple was in and of itself benign. But the faith had gone from a relational covenant with God to a crass and secular business operation – the selling of animals and exchange of money within the Temple itself. The sacredness and singular focus upon God had transformed to a financial opportunity for the few who thought nothing of using the veneer of religion for their gain.

Such duplicity, moved from outside the Temple area right into the Temple itself

in the court yard area, was a scandal and a sacrilege of Temple worship where anything unclean was forbidden. 

So, Jesus rails against hypocrisy, dishonesty, and the mixing of pagan and sacred practices.  Like the prophets of old Jesus “cleanses” the Temple of such filth:  He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the Temple area . . . and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables . . . Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”  If that didn’t get the attention of the Temple authorities nothing could.

At this the Jews . . . said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?” A question not out of line actually.  What gives you the authority to throw these changers and animals out of here?

In the prophetic mode Jesus makes a statement that at least on the surface was a bit strange: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 

When they heard Jesus make such a claim the authorities no doubt were either shocked or laughed sarcastically, likely both. But what about his inner circle?  They knew the statement must have a deeper spiritual meaning and John adds that Jesus was referring to his own body, an illusion to the resurrection.

But that claim became the focus of this event.  In the risen Lord, a new age has begun and the ancient Temple worship was abolished.  It is the person of Christ Jesus we look to and in his Church, his Body, we are formed into the very image of Christ himself.  In the new way which Jesus came to bring, in his singular sacrifice on the cross which now replaced forever all the bloody sacrifices that had been offered at the Temple, a new Covenant is established between God and humanity.  While the original Covenant we hear of in the first reading continues to be the heart of the Jewish faith and continues to have direct relevance for our moral life, it is the new Covenant of love and service towards all that is now established. God is Lord alone and love of neighbor, Jew and Gentile alike, is the concrete expression of God’s mercy to us.

Of course, those who witnessed this bold action by Jesus had no comprehension of such theology.  They saw this as a rash action which scholars have debated as the likely cause which pushed the Jewish authorities over the edge and targeted Jesus for arrest.  The Temple was the heart and soul of Jewish worship and identity and Jesus was directly violating this in a brash public display and threat. 

As we come into the midst of our Lenten journey we are invited to recognize not only the reverence of persons as “temples” of the Spirit but also the Body of the Church itself as a sign of the new Covenant which expands and fulfills the old.  The gathering of the people of God week after week, the charitable works of the Church, the individual members, the moral code of uncompromising fidelity to God’s law of love and mercy, all become the new temple based in the life of the risen Lord no longer held fixed in one geographical location. 

No longer is the blood of animals sacrificed to appease a God of vengeance but now a new Covenant from the blood of Jesus shed once for all is our hope.  At each Eucharist we remember this new relationship with God, signed, sealed and delivered for all. 

As we hear at each Mass when the wine is consecrated by the priest: “For this is the chalice of my blood. The blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in memory of me.”