Sunday, April 8, 2012

easter and the temple

When the soul is wholly united with God
and baptized in the divine nature,
it loses all hindrances and sickness and inconstancy
and is at once renewed in a divine life.
(Meister Eckhart)

Partially because of our trip to the Holy Land this year, but also inspired by Pagola’s book on Jesus, I’ve really been fixated on the Temple this year as I prepared for Easter. I’d like to take you back to last Sunday for a moment, Palm Sunday, when we read the story of the passion of Jesus. This being Year B in the liturgical cycle, we read from the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s gospel specific mention is made of the high priests’ pointing to Jesus’ incident in the Temple––the so-called “cleansing of the temple”––as a motive for their wanting to put him to death. Mark brings it up in the scene before the high priest, and then it appears again in the scene at the cross when the soldiers are mocking Jesus; Mark also gives us that dramatic scene of the curtain of the temple being torn in two, from top to bottom at the moment when Jesus died. That incident just keeps coming up over and over again. Many scripture scholars think that it is that provocative gesture in the temple that was the main reason for the Jewish authorities’ hostility against Jesus, and the decisive reason for them handing him over to Pilate and the Roman authorities. It’s not the Jews in general, mind you, who are upset about this, but this wealthy, powerful minority, the priestly class that was aligned politically with the Romans and who had a lot invested in the institution of the Temple with they themselves as the sole mediators of God’s mercy. (The Temple scene is also Jesus’ last public action; the authorities won’t let Jesus do anything after that.)

We must understand: the Temple was untouchable; ever since the time of Jeremiah the authorities reacted violently against anyone who dared attack it. So to do something like Jesus did––to go in with whips and cords and knock over the money changers’ tables––could be seen as an attack on the very heart of the Jewish tradition, or at least a serious attack against the institution, because the Temple was the symbol around which everything else revolved, Jewish religious, social and political life. There are different interpretations of what Jesus’ action meant. It could be that he was aiming at an elimination of the whole institution of sacrifices for absolution and the atonement of sin; maybe he was denouncing of the hierarchical priesthood and the whole political economic and religious system that had built up around it. Perhaps he was saying that none of this really had anything to do with God, that none of this had any place in the reign of God, and that his co-religionists had gotten totally off course somehow.

Of course if you think about it, this whole movement away from the Temple had already begun back with John the Baptist. We rarely note that John himself was from a priestly family through his father Zechariah, but John had abandoned the Temple to perform his ritual cleansing outside of the sacrificial priestly temple system, out in the Jordan valley, outside the Promised Land looking in. And now a few months later along comes this homeless wandering rabbi from Podunk Galilee who is signaling that the God of the poor and excluded does not and will not reign from that Temple, does not and will not legitimize that system. Whatever the case may be, this symbol of the Temple must be important, since it keeps appearing on the horizon.

One way to look at it is that Jesus was signaling was that the Temple has been relocated. (I’ve spoken about this so many times, this term I get from the theologian James Alison). There’s a beautiful phrase from the prophet Ezekiel that is the preferred text to be sung for the Sprinkling Rite during the season of Easter, the rite that reminds us of our Baptism; it’s also recommended to be sung immediately after the renewal of Baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil: I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple; the water brought God’s life and his salvation. Of course in its original context, Ezekiel is having a vision of life-giving power pouring from the new Temple in Jerusalem. He describes a river of fresh water that flows from out of the east side and slightly south through the Kidron Valley, incidentally where John in his Gospel tells us Jesus went with his disciples Thursday night before he was arrested. 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 the sanctuary. Remember John puts the ‘cleaning of the Temple’ right in the beginning of his gospel; and after Jesus takes the whip of cords and drives everybody out they 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 off to the side, somewhat parenthetically, he was speaking about the temple of his body. That’s why we speak about it at Easter time. The Temple has been ‘relocated.’ It was a building, which had already gotten destroyed once. And the vision that Ezekiel has of a new Temple is actually 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’ heart. 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; as we are still remembering and are supposed to call to mind what we heard on Friday, again from the Gospel of John, how one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately blood and water flowed out. This blood and water of course symbolize among other things the sacramental life of the church, specifically Baptism and Eucharist, but most of all (as Ronald Rolheiser spoke so eloquently to us about last year) they symbolize the very stuff, the very energy of life flowing out of this new temple, the Body of Christ.

But it doesn’t stop there, and that’s why we celebrate Baptism at this celebration. St Paul understood the implications of all this and never tires of reminding his readers that the temple gets relocated again, from the body of Jesus, to our bodies, through Baptism, if we immerse ourselves totally into the death-kenosis-emptying like Jesus. And so the words of the 1st letter to the Corinthians: 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! That thing that I read years ago that Carl Jung wrote comes to mind again, that life seemed to have gone out of the churches, and as its next dwelling place the Holy Spirit appears to have selected the human individual. This comes as no surprise to Christians. That’s what happens in Jesus’ dispensation. Do you not know that you are God’s temple by the Holy Spirit who dwells within you? What Carl Jung had stumbled upon was authentic Christianity: The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us. And if the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you then God will raise our bodies too… glorious copies of his own. Maybe that’s why Jesus performed that provocative act in the temple, to let us know that as its next dwelling place the Holy Spirit has selected the human individual––his body, our bodies, our beings. That’s also why we sing that phrase from Ezekiel while we are renewing our own Baptismal vows. The water––the waters of the Spirit, the waters of Baptism––flows in and out of us. That’s what Easter is all about.

And this then is what it means to be church, to be the body of Christ, the fullness of the one who fills everything. There are these words of St Peter that we will hear several times during the Easter season: like living stones let yourself be built into a spiritual house. This is what it means to be church, to be stones and a house, a temple out of which the love of God, the Holy Spirit, would pour like a stream of life giving water, pour out like love, like charity, as creativity, and participation, full active and conscious participation not just in the liturgy and life of the church, but, as St Peter says, participants in the divine nature, participants in divinity, participants in creation, the blood and the water flowing out of us, the Temple that we are individually as out of our communities, our churches, our families. Our Baptism, our immersion into the death-kenosis-emptying of Jesus leads us to live a life of union with God too, like branches on the vine.

Jesus’ life, ministry and death––and especially his resurrection––teach us that God has nothing to do with death. Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the fullest. God does not require vengeance and punishment to be propitiated and mollified. We don’t need to sacrifice children or animals nor mutilate our own bodies. The letter to the Hebrews adapts Psalm 40 and puts on the lips of Jesus: You did not wish for holocaust or offerings, but a body you have prepared for me. The word “body” really meant one’s whole person, and that is what Jesus offered up to his Abba––his whole being. Jesus’ sacrifice was a humble, contrite heart; Jesus sacrifice was emptying himself and taking the form of a slave, of a life poured out in service to the reign of God. Jesus’ whole life was a perfect offering––and it’s within the context of that that he allowed himself to be handed over to the Romans and sacrificed by the high priests “for the sake of the people.” It is in thus emptying himself that the fullness of godhead dwelt in him bodily and we receive from that fullness grace upon grace. The marvel is that the Father still raised him on high because God is about life, not death. He gave it all over and he got it all back, transfigured, glorified. And so Paul tells us to offer our bodies, our whole beings, as spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God, that you may come to fullness in him, to empty ourselves and die with/like Jesus so as to be filled with the very fullness and to become ourselves living stones of a temple not built by human hands. This is what we remember when we remember and why we remember our Baptism at Easter, because God’s Temple is holy and Jesus was that Temple, and you are that Temple, and I am that Temple, and we are that Temple.