Unlike the other gospel writers, who place the Cleansing of the Temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry, John places this event at the beginning, right after the wedding feast at Cana. Both events are signs highly symbolic of purification and transformation. But in contrast to Jesus’ low-profile rescue of a wedding celebration by miraculously replenishing the wine, in this morning’s Gospel, we have a wild scene of disruption in the Jerusalem Temple. Here, the as yet unknown prophet from Galilee comes in and turns everything upside down. We can imagine the commotion, the screaming, the noise of the animals, the sound of money falling to the ground as Jesus, filled with “zeal for his Father’s house,” overturns tables and chases the animals out. The whole place is suddenly in chaos! Familiar with the story, we may not appreciate just how shocking this was….
The Temple, we have to remember, was the beating heart of Judaism. It was the center of worship and music, of politics and society, of national celebration and mourning. It was also the place where you would find more animals (alive and dead) than anywhere else. But, towering above all these, it was of course the place where Israel’s God had promised to live in the midst of his people. The Temple was the focal point of the nation and the national way of life.
Back to the story. In their resentment, the merchants and money-changers rush to find the Temple priests. They, in turn, want to know with what authority Jesus is creating such an outrage: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, they did not understand him. His own disciples would come to an understanding only in hindsight after the resurrection. But the evangelist clues us in: “He was speaking about the temple of his body.”
Jesus is revealing something totally new. The Temple of Jerusalem is, and always will be, a place of holiness. Now his body, his very being, is the new Temple, the place of holiness where God dwells. Jesus is indicating that life and love and healing and forgiveness will flow from him, through his body, his broken and risen body, as was prophesized by Ezekiel, who saw life-giving and healing waters flowing abundantly out of the new Temple. God is no longer far off in the heavens, symbolized by the great beauty and majesty of the Temple of Jerusalem, but he has pitched his tent among us in the Body of Jesus. “He was speaking about the temple of his body.”
We know from the Acts of the Apostles, that the early church took the metaphor further as it came to understand that the creator of the world does not live in ‘a house made with hands’ but in the hearts of his people. Both individually and corporately, we are temples of the Holy Spirit. What this might mean to us on a personal level, especially as it relates to the prayer that goes on in our hearts, is what I would like to focus on briefly this morning.
John O’Donohue, Irish teacher and poet, wrote in one of his books: “Deep below the personality and outer image” – and we could add ‘our awareness’ – “the soul is continuously at prayer ... The most vital and creative prayer is always happening within us even though we never fully hear it. Now and again we catch the echoes of the inner music of prayer.” (I hear echoes here of Paul’s words: “His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God... Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”)
The Good News for us is that, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and all that he is, deep within us, in the heart of the temple that we are, the sanctuary lamp continues to burn; the union with God, that we both seek and avoid, is already happening, though we are not always aware of it. Again, as O’Donohue put it: “The most vital and creative prayer is always happening within us even though we never fully hear it.” I would suggest that this prayer is the ongoing cleansing and transformation of the temple we are.
Thomas Merton seems to confirm this when he wrote:
In prayer, we discover what we already have.
You start from where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you
realize you are already there.
We already have everything, but we don’t know it and don’t experience it.
Everything has been given us in Christ. All we need to do is experience what we
The crunch is in the last line: “All we need to do is experience what we already possess.” But how to do that? From time to time we do experience this mystery. But coming home to ourselves, to others, and to God involves a lifelong journey that is frequently challenging. During the long season of Lent each year, it is liberating to rediscover the importance of accepting, trusting, even embracing the ebbs and flows of experience. There will be harvest days when we feel our lives are coming together as they should, and we feel connected to God. And there will be days (usually further down the road) when we won’t feel like that when scarcity rather than abundance is our experience.
No matter. Starting from where we are, as Merton suggests, is essential for authentic prayer. We need to pray as we can, not as we can’t. And sometimes that means bringing the mess of our uncertainty and anguish to God. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani went through an agonizing struggle before he reached the place where he could say, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.” For the Christian, “to pray”—before all else—is to let this prayer of Jesus happen in us, to allow him to pray in us.
As we begin the 3rd week of Lent, we can count on grace mercifully “upsetting” and “dismantling” some of our Lenten agendas, and the self-importance and self-control that often underlie them. Whether through prayer or life’s challenges, we gradually are being dismantled in order to create a more hospitable space, open to finding God in places and situations we would perhaps prefer to have avoided. What is being dismantled are our walls that defend against and exclude other people, God, or parts of ourselves that we can’t accept. But regardless of who we are, regardless of what we’ve done or left undone, or how we see or judge our life, in Christ, as his Body, we are the temple of God, and there is One who stands in the temple of our life calling us back to who we’ve always been—a place for meeting the Holy in ourselves and in one another. Here, through “holy disruption,” we receive all our life from God, by virtue of the death and resurrection of his Son.
Photograph by Brother Brian. Today's homily by Father Dominic.