Rising in the Air
Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley reflects on the nature of permanence and change.
Great buildings are like balloons coming up from the past. We are born in mid air, and all of our lives, we are falling through the air. However much we imagine we will be up here forever, eventually we hit the ground. We are heavy and we must fall. Great buildings are lighter than us. They float up from the past, unless we live in the time when they are being built. We see them rise into the future which we will not live to see. This is why tyrants are so fond of great building projects. They seek to achieve a sense of permanence, to send their balloons up into the future. Often enough, they will seek to build whole cities, as this gives them the opportunity to raze to the ground the buildings of the past. In their childish egotism, they make every one else’s balloons go pop.
Not all great buildings are products of pride and ego though. Sometimes they are gifts from the past, like the products of the civic pride of the Victorian age, which somehow seem more wholesome than the bland, repetitive patterns of the modern age. The great Victorian buildings were decorated on the outside with great exuberance, to show that these were buildings to be shared, to give joy to the passersby, and to be part of the common good. They were for the people, but not necessarily for God.
The great Temple of Jerusalem was both. It was built for the people; it was built to gather them in and yet not just for their own sake. Here the people would raise themselves to God. At the same time, it was the product of a murderous tyrant. The man who had tried to kill Christ in his infancy, Herod the Great, was largely responsible for the Temple, a vast building by any standards, which Our Lord would have seen. Herod was a complex monster. Piety was not wholly absent from his makeup, and whatever his motives in building the Temple, it served the purpose of the Jews and was a joy to them.
The Temple plays a commanding role in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel begins in the Temple with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, and the Gospel ends with the disciples continually in the Temple praising God. Yet there is a certain irony in this ending as we see in The Acts of the Apostles. This begins with Jesus rising into the air, having passed beyond the bonds of death. The disciples return to Jerusalem but the great events of the new people, the appointment of a new member of the twelve, Matthias, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost do not happen at the Temple. Peter and John soon find themselves excluded from the Temple. It is not through choice that the early church abandons the Temple but through circumstance. The Acts ends with St Paul in prison, yet able to teach about the Lord Jesus Christ without hindrance. Significantly it was the accusation that he had tried to profane the Temple (Acts 24:6), which had led to his arrest in the Temple and his being brought eventually to Rome.
By the time Luke was writing his Gospel and the Acts, the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. He knows that the new Temple was not made of stone but was a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and therefore a Temple of the human body. ‘Do you not know that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit?’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). We still build great buildings, including great churches, we still send up our balloons up into the future. This is not wrong but we must remember that ultimately, even balloons sink to earth. It is human beings who transcend death and the ravages of time, because our rising from the dead is a rising in the Spirit. As St Paul puts it. ‘Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:17).