The biblical account of the rebuilding of the temple after the Babylonian exile is really quite fascinating. Unless one understands the history that preceded this event, it’s understandable that one might miss the tremendous excitement in that reading. The returning Jewish exiles were certainly excited, but we should also be filled with wonder at this event. It is one of the supreme examples of Divine Providence operating on behalf of his people in this world.
Think about it. In 597 B.C., the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jerusalem and forced the Jewish people into exile to serve his country. Eleven years later, in 586 BC, he exiled the remaining Jews and destroyed the Temple of Solomon because the remnant was resisting his rule. Now here we are 70 years later, and two successive kings, Cyrus and Darius, not only allow the Jews to return to their homeland, not only allow them to rebuild their temple, but even find them financial support. What in the world is going on where these pagan kings are supporting the religion of a foreign people who were once slaves in Babylon? There may be some political motivation, but the real answer is that this was all part of God’s divine plan for his people and that Cyrus and Darius were simply operating this is agents, whether they understood it or not.
The Jews complete the second Temple in a very short time, dedicating it in 516 BC, which itself is amazing. The second Temple never quite had the glory of Solomon’s Temple, and for that reason Herod the great erected a third Temple just before the birth of Christ. That temple’s splendor evidently did match that of Solomon, and we hear that the apostles themselves were in awe at its sight. After the Babylonian exile, the Jews never regain their own sovereignty and were always under the dominion of some powerful nation, which was Rome at the time of Jesus. Nonetheless, the era of the second Temple does not seem to have the same course in Israel as the era following Solomon. Perhaps the lack of a temporal sovereignty was instrumental in keeping the Jews more focused on the covenant and the hope for a Messiah.
Unless we understand the grandeur of these temples, culminating in Herod’s third Temple, we cannot fully appreciate the shock of the Jews when they heard Jesus proclaim “destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” The Jewish leaders misunderstood him to mean the Temple of Herod, and they simply mocked the very idea that he could rebuild that physical edifice in three days.
But I wonder if his own disciples were not even more stunned or confused when they learned that he was actually speaking about his own body, which effectively made his physical body greater than the Temple which was the pride of Israel for centuries. How could any human body be greater than that magnificent temple in all its glory? The only answer to that question is found in the truth of the Incarnation, that the Word was made flesh, and that Jesus’ body has been assumed by the Son of God. Thus his body is obviously of infinitely greater value and beauty than any Temple made by human hands. Thus, the three temples of Jerusalem were simply anticipations of the ultimate Temple of God which would come in the flesh of Jesus Christ. What excitement they must’ve had when they came to understand the full meaning of his statement to the Jewish leaders.
This mystery of God’s Temple can also be contemplated in the words that close today’s gospel: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” In a certain way, those words are even more startling than his words about “destroy this temple…” If they don’t arouse our wonder, they should. And here I’m not talking about simply the fact that he could seem to be denigrating his own mother and relatives But of course that is absurd. Taken at their face value, we know that no one heard the word of God and kept it more perfectly than his mother. Indeed, she kept the W0rd so perfectly in her soul, says Augustine, that God enabled her to receive and keep the same Word in her womb through the power of the Holy Spirit. So, as wonderful as that interpretation of the passage is, and it is quite correct, it does not exhaust the full implications of that sentence of Jesus.
So what does it ultimately mean to be the mother and brother and sister of Jesus? It means to be his most intimate relations, more intimate than even his physical relations. In short, it means that those who keep the Word of God become the Temple of God, again through the action of the Holy Spirit who made Mary the Temple of God in a most wonderful way. You and I, by virtue of faith and baptism have become the Temple of God. That’s what Paul insists on again and again in his letters. You are the temple of God, he says. So think about that.
So, we might look at the temple theme this way. Jesus is quite obviously the first temple of God by virtue of the Incarnation, the perfect union of His divine person with his human nature. Then we might see Mary as the second Temple of God, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that the second Temple, in this case, was less perfect than the third, as in the Old Testament. That too would be absurd. Here I am speaking loosely, metaphysically, for she becomes the second Temple of God “after” the first, again due to the truth of the incarnation. Once the divine Word is united to the flesh received from Mary, that divine person begins to dwell personally and humanly in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Yes, that’s why the church can forever repeat those beautiful words “Blessed is the womb that bore thee.”
But finally, there is indeed the third Temple of God, which is the Church as a whole and each of her members individually. Thus this mystery expands to embrace the Church and every believer who is baptized “into” Christ. In a way, this mystery of the Temple of God, and its three different forms of incarnation, actually reverses what happened in the Old Testament. There, the people of God entered into the temple to worship God. In the new dispensation, God enters into the temple of human bodies to be worshiped there forever, above all in the Body of Christ, but also in the body of the Church, which includes Mary and all the individual members. Each of them is also the Temple of the Lord. If that doesn’t stir our wonder and excite our souls, I simply don’t know what could.
Think about this mystery of the Temple of God the next time you receive Holy Communion, in the context of the words of St. Paul that you are the temple of God. It will keep you from distraction, and help you to return to your place in the church filled with devotion and a prayerful spirit. If you do that, I doubt that you will ever be bored at Mass again, once you understand what its nucleus really is.
Categories: Weekday reflections