Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 7)

The Temple in Jerusalem was first built by King Solomon in the 10th century before Christ. The Temple held the Ark of the Covenant in its inner most spot called the Holy of Holies. God was worshiped in the Temple every day. During the year various sacrifices and offerings were made to God in the Temple.

Once a year the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to make a special atonement offering for the forgiveness of sins; this day was observed as the Day of Atonement.

In 587 BC the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. It was rebuilt sometime after the exile in Babylon which lasted approximately 50 years. Herod greatly expanded the area surrounding the Temple (this is the area that one sees today when visiting Jerusalem; the Temple itself being destroyed by the Romans in 135 AD). The Israelites viewed the Temple as God’s dwelling place on earth — it was the “house of God.”

The Gospel account for today’s liturgy recalls one of Jesus’ visits to the Temple. The “temple” is used as both a physical building but also as an image providing us with three points to consider as we continue our Lenten journey.

First, the Temple refers to the building, the “house of God.” Jesus is overwhelmed by the disrespect shown to God’s dwelling place; and more to the point, God himself. He is infuriated at the level of disrespect hence the overthrowing of the tables and the expulsion of the money-changers. When Jesus does this, his disciples recall the scriptural passage: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

From this encounter, we might consider the respect we show when in our churches. The image of God’s house, the place of worship and sacrifice and the dwelling place of God all apply to our churches and chapels. We might ask ourselves, how do I behave in the church? Am I mindful of God’s presence? Do I show respect?

Second, the temple refers to Jesus’ body. Using the term this way, Jesus says that God’s dwelling place on earth is in him, in his body. He and the Father as so united as one that where Jesus is so is the Father. Jesus forecasts his death where the temple of his body will be destroyed, only to be restored three days later. He uses the image as a “sign” of God’s presence and authority.

The authority is rooted in mercy as Jesus allows himself to be overcome by evil forces culminating in his passion and death, only to defeat these forces in his resurrection. In this Jesus becomes the “sign” of God who forgives sin and destroys death. This saving activity is not the “way of the world” but the “way of God.”

Hence St. Paul will later write to the Corinthians (second reading):

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

As we move through the days of Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on God’s love for us and the power of that love to give life. He has given that life to us, at such a great cost. He does this so that we might know and see his love. He spares nothing to show us his love so that his life will dwell in us and among us.

Third, by extension the temple refers to the living Body of Christ, the church. This time not a building of stone and mortar but the risen Body of Christ and all who are incorporated to it through baptism. In baptism we are united to Christ in his death so as to have a like share in his resurrection. The one perfect sacrifice is Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross. In baptism we are united in this sacrifice and so become a living sacrifice. Our lives are now dedicated to God.

The manner in which we live will have a direct bearing on the “witness” to God’s dwelling among man. The Exodus passage (first reading) recalls the establishment of the covenant with Israel in the giving of the law, the basis of which is the Ten Commandments. While the law does not have the power to save — that has been, is being and will be accomplished through Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection — it does provide us a help in living our lives in Christ. Observance of God’s commands help us in our journey toward him, and it helps us in our relations with each other in the one Body of Christ.

During Lent we take time to identify areas of life that do not give due respect to God’s dwelling among us and we express sorrow and contrition for these times. The Ten Commandments are a great basis for self-reflection in this regard; in other words, as the basis for an examination of conscience. In doing so we prepare ourselves for a cleansing. God’s mercy takes over from there.

The Temple provides us a rich image of God’s dwelling among us. He is present to us in real and concrete ways. Lent provides us a time of reflection on his presence in and among us. A time to be renewed, forgiven and cleansed so that we can be living witnesses to his love and mercy, a temple of God, the Body of Christ.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.