The Third Sunday in Lent

Stating obligations, however necessary and desirable, is not in itself friendship. And even Jerusalem is of little use unless one is a Jew. So finally, then, Jesus offers his own way into the experience of God.

The Liturgy of the Word today presents us with two partial but ultimately unsatisfactory ways of experiencing God, and by implication it contrasts these with the way we as Christians experience, or ought to experience, what he is like.

The first way is the way of the Ten Commandments, the ten supreme ‘Words’ of the Jewish Law, which express the revealed experience of God as moral Lawgiver on Mount Sinai. We all have consciences. We are aware of the difference between the concept of right and the concept of wrong. We are aware not only of how things have been and are but of how they ought to be. We have a sense of ethical imperatives that bind because they are objectively true, because they accord with practical reason. The moral law is not something we make up as we go along, it is something we recognize or receive. It may be discovered by a process of reflection about the good; or it may be disclosed to us. For Israel, the moral law was above all something disclosed, and in giving the Law God had revealed to Israel in his love for her what the good life is like – and made it known more comprehensively, as well as more readily, than was the case among the Gentiles. Hence that lyrical outburst of the responsorial psalm in praise of the Law: how perfect and trustworthy it is, more desirable than purest gold and sweeter than honey.

Nevertheless focusing one’s sense of God and relation with God on the Law has its drawbacks. Inevitably there is something impersonal about it. The moral law is universal or it would not be moral law. And a divine command, even if it reflects the divine goodness, is not God himself. Jesus will tell his disciples that he will not call them any longer servants, he will call them friends. Stating obligations, however necessary and desirable, is not in itself friendship.

The second less than fully satisfactory way of approaching God comes in today’s Gospel, the Cleansing of the Temple. The Jews weren’t just moralists. The Psalter shows they were contemplatives too. One main way in which they contemplated God was through his Temple presence. If you were feeling miserable and you wanted a shot of God’s presence, you could always go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, up the Hill of Zion:

Remember, and my soul melts within me;
I am on my way to the wonderful Tent,
to the house of God.’

Not that God was confined to the Temple sanctuary, but that was where he had chosen to put his Glory.

And once again there are drawbacks. The mystique of Jerusalem may be a very moving thing in Judaism – I think of the cemeteries of the Hasidim on the westward slopes of the Mountain of Olives so located that at the resurrection of the righteous they can face the Holy City. But that mystique is also a very restrictive thing. Anywhere that is not Jerusalem is religiously disadvantaged. And even Jerusalem is of little use unless one is a Jew. What our Lord objected to at the Cleansing was not so much – so it has been argued – the commerce for its own sake (money changed hands when people bought animals for sacrifice) as the way Israel had nationalized her worship (money-changers were needed to prevent Gentile coins that defiled the bearers from coming into the sanctuary in people’s pockets). The Temple was not in practice the house of prayer for all nations that the more far- seeing of the prophets had described.

So finally, then, Jesus offers his own way into the experience of God. ‘Pull down this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days’. And the evangelist adds, ‘He was speaking of the temple of his body’. His own body is a temple, a sanctuary, because in his humanity, his embodied humanity, he is himself personally the Word of God and the Glory of the Trinity expressed for us. Since he shares our humanity, we can respond to God in him in the way that is least partial and unsatisfactory for human beings: we can, as he himself taught, respond to him as Friend, in a shared inter- personal communion of knowledge and love.

In this body of his he will undergo violent death. He foretells it now, but we shall witness it liturgically on Good Friday. Yet his murder will be an opportunity for fresh building. In his risen body he will be even more accessible to us, set free in the Holy Spirit to communicate as the God-man with people everywhere. He will reach out to touch them wherever – through, not least, the Church which is now, as we say, his Mystical Body and his sacraments which are her mysteries.

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