Father Donald Senior, CP

March 4: Third Sunday of Lent

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The temple of His body

Ex 20:1-17; Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25

The readings for the Sundays of Lent are especially rich, drawing on some of the most fundamental passages of the Bible. For example, this Sunday begins with the proclamation of the Ten Commandments.  

Not long ago, I saw a story online where Pope Francis asked a group of pilgrims to name the Ten Commandments. Only a few tentative hands were raised, and no one present could name all 10. The pope smiled and suggested it might be good to review them.

Here is our chance to review this Sunday. Many of us had them drilled into our heads in Catholic grade school but the memory may have faded. What is striking in rereading them is to see that the commands dealing with our relationship to God are very forceful: “You shall not have other gods before me”; “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”; “keep holy the Sabbath day.” 

But most of the commands deal with our responsibilities to each other: honoring our parents, not killing or committing adultery, not stealing, or bearing false witness against our neighbor, or coveting their property, or our neighbor’s wife or any of their precious possessions. Although the commandments are put in the somewhat archaic language “you shall not,” a glance at the daily news shows how the values present here are exceedingly contemporary and how often we fail to live them out in our lives.

If a recitation of the Ten Commandments reminds us of our human frailty the Gospel passage for today, the account of the cleansing of the temple from the Gospel of John, reminds us of our dignity as human beings and sons and daughters of God. In the other three Gospels, Jesus’ purification of the temple takes place near the very end of his life. 

After entering Jerusalem, as celebrated on Palm Sunday, Jesus goes to the magnificent temple build by Herod the Great and there performs the prophetic act decrying the human weakness that has soiled the sacred place and reclaims it for God. Most commentators on the accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke see this dramatic event as the occasion for the arrest of Jesus as he brings his call for reform and renewal into the heart of Jerusalem.

But John’s version of the story is different. The purification of the temple takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. While here, too, Jesus takes a strong prophetic role, challenging those who have made “my Father’s house a marketplace,” the Johannine account moves in a different direction. When the religious authorities challenge Jesus’ authority to so disrupt the temple, he replies enigmatically: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  

As the Gospel narrator makes clear, suddenly the temple being referred to is not Herod’s magnificent structure but the temple of Jesus’ own body, a body where God’s presence dwelt in an intense and unique way. Here we see in play at the very beginning of Jesus’ mission, the Johannine conviction that Jesus is “God’s Word made flesh,” the very embodiment of God’s loving presence in the world. 

Paul the Apostle and other early Christian writers accurately saw here the basis for viewing Christians themselves as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” Through baptism, God’s Spirit dwells within the human person, body and soul, giving us incredible dignity as daughters and sons of God.

This profound realization of our Christian dignity gives new meaning to the commandments heard in the first reading for today. For us as Christians, the Ten Commandments are not arbitrary rules but ways of expressing our dignity and beauty as human beings, suffused with the grace of God. As such we willingly give praise to God and treat our fellow human beings — themselves temples of the living God — with respect and care, refusing to abuse, exploit or injure them in any way. We are called to be holy, as the God who lives within us, is holy.


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