The Temple of his Body
Third Sunday of Lent. Fr. Aidan Nichols preaches on how the Christian experience of God transcends the limitations of law and the particularity of place.
The Liturgy of the Word today presents us with two partial but ultimately unsatisfactory ways of experiencing God. And by implication it contrasts these with the way we as Christians experience, or ought to experience, what God is like.
The first way is the way of the Ten Commandments, the Ten Supreme Words of the Jewish Law, which express the experience of God as a moral lawgiver.
We’ve all got consciences – a fact we recognise from time to time when it’s not too drastically inconvenient. We’re aware not just of how things have been and are in our lives but of what they ought to be. We have a sense not just of ‘is’ but of ‘ought’ – of obligation, ethical imperatives.
And somewhere in the depths of all that is God and a sense of God. Our personal moral world doesn’t make up laws for itself. We receive the moral law; we don’t make it up as we go along.
The ancient Jews thought this discovery wonderful. In giving the Law God in his love for Israel had revealed to her, more clearly than to any other nation, what the good life is like. Hence that lyrical outburst of Psalm 18 in praise of the Law: how perfect and trustworthy it is, more desirable than purest gold and sweeter than honey!
But unfortunately there’s a big drawback if you focus your sense of God there in the Law. There is something very distant about lawgivers. Sometimes, maybe, we give a friend good advice, or get him or her to see something about right and wrong worth knowing. But it would be an odd sort of friendship that consisted in barking orders at somebody.
The second unsatisfactory way to focus our sense of God comes in the Gospel account of the Cleansing of the Temple.
The Jews weren’t just moralists. As almost any of the Psalms shows, they were contemplatives as well. One main way in which they contemplated God was through his Temple presence in the holy city, Jerusalem. If you were feeling depressed and miserable and you wanted a shot of God’s presence, you went on pilgrimage to the Hill of Zion.
I remember, and my soul melts within me;
I am on my way to the wonderful Tent,
to the house of God.
Not that God was confined within the Temple sanctuary. But the Temple was where he had chosen to put his Glory.
Once again, there are drawbacks to this way of experiencing God. The mystique of Jerusalem is a very moving thing in Judaism. If you go there today, you’ll see the cemeteries of the Hasidim, the pious, on the westward slopes of the Mount of Olives – located there so that at the resurrection of the righteous they will be facing Jerusalem.
But the corollary is that for anywhere that isn’t Jerusalem, it’s hard chips. Not only that, but even Jerusalem won’t do you any good unless you’re a Jew first.
People think that Jesus cleansed the Temple mainly because of an objection to religious commerce. But the money-dealers were there to change Gentile money into Jewish, because even Gentile money jangling in your pocket would defile you if you entered the Temple. As for using it to buy your animals for the sacrifices, that was unthinkable.
What Jesus objected to was the way the Jews had narrowed, nationalised, true worship.
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Compare the Temple with St Peter’s in Rome and you begin to get the point.
So finally, then, Jesus offers his own way to the experience of God.
Pull down this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days.
And, we are told, he ‘was speaking of the temple of his body’.
First, then, Jesus’s body is itself a sanctuary, since in his humanity – in his very bodiliness, indeed – Jesus is God and the Glory of God expressed for us. Because he shares our humanity, we can respond to God in the way that is least partial and unsatisfactory for human beings. We can respond to God as to our friend.
Secondly, Jesus envisages his own violent death in this body of his. But his murder is going to be an opportunity for fresh building. In his risen body Christ will be even more accessible as the place of God for us.
He will be set free by the Holy Spirit to communicate with people everywhere. He will reach out to touch them wherever they are – through, not least, his Church which is his mystical body, and his sacraments which are her mysteries.