re-locating the temple

(fr Cyprian, Nov 9, Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Cathedral)

The Lateran Basilica is the cathedral of Rome, originally built during the reign of emperor Constantine and consecrated in 324 by Pope St. Sylvester. This feast eventually became a universal celebration, the liturgical books tell us, in honor of the basilica which is called Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput––‘the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world,’ and a “sign of love for and union with the See of Peter.” You would have thought the Scriptures would have been something about the primacy of Peter or the hierarchy of ministries in the church. But what the readings for this feast tell us is something different and changes the focus of this feast a lot.

The Ezekiel passage that is read on this day––I saw water flowing from the right side of the Temple, it brought God’s life and his salvation––you may recall is the preferred text for the Sprinkling Rite during the season of Easter, the rite that reminds us of our Baptism, and indeed is also recommended to be sung immediately after the renewal of Baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil. In its original context, the prophet Ezekiel is having a vision of the life-giving power pouring from the new Temple, and of course here we mean the original Temple of Jerusalem. The prophet describes a river of fresh water that flows from out of the east side and slightly south through the Kidron Valley (which is incidentally where John in his Gospel tells us Jesus went with his disciples that fateful Thursday night before he was arrested and put to death). Ezekiel’s vision is of a miracle that attests to the life-giving power of God dwelling in the sanctuary.

But under Jesus everything gets “relocated,” including the Temple. And so we hear from near the beginning of the Gospel of John (chapter 2), Jesus has come up to Jerusalem for the Passover and he finds people selling cattle, sheep and doves there; and the moneychangers were there seated at their tables. Recall that in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) this scene takes place later, just before Jesus is arrested and put to death, as if it is the proximate reason for his arrest. But John wants to begin his whole narrative of Jesus’ public ministry with this story of cleansing the Temple. And Jesus is not very nice here; he takes a whip of cords and drives everybody out. ‘Take these things out of here!’ he says. ‘Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’ When the Jews challenge him––‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’––he says, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Of course they take him literally as if he were speaking about the building, but John lets us in on the secret and whispers to us again off to the side, somewhat parenthetically, he was speaking about the temple of his body.

So the Temple has been relocated. It was a building, which had already gotten destroyed once. But according to Christianity, the vision that Ezekiel has thof the new Temple was not another one of brick and mortar, but a person in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily. The life-giving power of God now dwells in that sanctuary, the sanctuary of Jesus’ flesh. So of course when we sing this phrase at Easter––I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple––, we are supposed to remember that the Temple is now Jesus’ own body, and when we sing this on Easter Sunday we are supposed to call to mind that two days before (on Good Friday) we had just heard the story, again from the Gospel of John, of how one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately blood and water flowed out.[1] This blood and water of course symbolize among other things the sacramental life of the church, specifically Baptism and Eucharist, but most of all the blood and water symbolize the very stuff, the very energy of life.

But it doesn’t stop there. St Paul understood the implications of all this and never tires of reminding his readers that the temple gets relocated yet again, from the body of Jesus, to our bodies. And so the words of the 1st Letter to the Corinthians that we hear on this feast: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? I can almost hear Paul shouting this last line: God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple! Carl Jung wrote at one point that life seemed to have gone out of the churches in the West, and as its next dwelling place the Holy Spirit appears to have selected the human individual. This comes as no surprise to Christians. ‘Destroy this temple,’ said Jesus, and in three days I will raise it up again. John tells us he was talking about the temple of his own body, but by extension he was also speaking about the temples of our own bodies. Do you not know that you are God’s temple by the Holy Spirit who dwells within you? What the great psychotherapist was articulating, of course, is authentic Christianity: The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us,[2] says St. Paul, into the deepest part of our beings. The temple that Jesus wants to ultimately cleanse is the temple of the human body, filled with thieves and marauders.

Of course the Scripture that follows on that is the one we listened to at Lauds this morning, again from the Gospel of John, chapter 7: ‘Come to me all you who are thirsty; come and drink all you who believe in me. Springs of living water shall flow from within you.’ The water flows from out of the side of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision; the blood and the water flow from the side of the new Temple, the body of Jesus on the cross bringing God’s life and salvation. By virtue of our Baptism and our allowing ourselves to be broken up and passed out for the sake of the world like Eucharist, the life giving water is meant to flow from out of our hearts to bring joy to the city of God.

That’s the church, the real church, us living stones built up into a royal nation, a holy priesthood, each of us like holograms that contain the whole image of the church in us, united in all her parts by such a bond of charity, as our Saint Peter Damian reminds us, that in each member the whole church is present, and out of whom the love of God, which has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, is meant to pour back out––in love, in service, in creativity, in participation.

[1] Jn 19:34.

[2] Rom 5:5.

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