In Jesus’ time, the temple meant everything for the Jews. It was, in fact, the center of their social, political, economic and spiritual life. The dwelling place of God, the temple was where heaven and earth met. For a people forbidden to carve representations of God, the temple was the closest image they had of him. The psalmist poignantly expresses this sentiment in his prayer: “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting… like a dry weary land without water. So, I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory.” (Ps 63:2)
Hence, it was no surprise that when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” the Jews were deeply shaken and scandalized. In fact, Jesus’ enemies used (rather, misused) his statement to falsely accuse him of blasphemy which eventually led to his condemnation by the Sanhedrin.
We know, of course, from the evangelist that when Jesus spoke of the temple, he was referring to his own body. His sacrificial death was figurative of the destruction of the temple and the definitive end of its worship characterized by the sacrifice of animals. By his resurrection, Jesus has become the new temple where the perfect sacrifice of his own body and blood is offered, which alone can expiate man’s sin and win his salvation.
St. Paul would expand the theme on the body of Christ as God’s temple to his teaching on the body of Christ’s disciples as the temples of the Holy Spirit. Writing to the Christian community in Corinth, Paul asked, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1Cor 6:19)
In baptism, we received the Holy Spirit and were incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church. The true dwelling place of God is no longer then in the temple of Jerusalem but in our own body. Isn’t that awesome?
The saints were keenly aware of this sublime reality. St. Teresa of Avila wrote in her book, The Interior Castle, of the King who resides in the innermost chamber of our soul. St. Augustine searched all his life for that “Beauty ever ancient, ever new,” only to find out that “you were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.”
Because we are the new temples of God, like Christ, we too should be ready to offer our own bodies as a sacrifice. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.” (Rm 12:1) The great grace of being God’s temple carries with it an equally great responsibility to keep ourselves holy and ever ready for self-immolation.
An author once posed this curious question: if Christ were to enter the temple of your body, what would he do? Would he crack the whip and overturn tables?
The gospel reading this Sunday is most timely and fitting, for lent is indeed a time for cleansing. It is an opportune occasion to rid ourselves of whatever is unworthy of a dwelling place of God. The fast required of us in lent primarily refers to renouncing whatever renders us unholy: sin, vice, passion, mediocrity… That is why during lent the Church earnestly exhorts her children to approach the sacrament of mercy and reconciliation.
Cleansing also means fixing. How often we feel that our life is all messed up and wish we were clearer and surer with our decisions. Lent is a fitting time to fix our life and put it in order – the order willed by God which alone can guarantee the happiness we seek. This order is articulated in the Ten Commandments (first reading), which God gives not so much as a set of do’s and don’ts, but as a sure way to attain true happiness and full life.
Worship God above all else. This is the primary order which puts all others in place. “If you do not worship God, you worship something else, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself. You have a duty to worship God, not because He will be imperfect and unhappy if you do not, but because you will be imperfect and unhappy.” (Fulton Sheen)*