They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers
and furnished them with doors. There was great joy among the people.
Where do you think heaven is? The best answer of course is heaven is where God is at home. The Jews understood this, and they wanted to make their temple a place where God is, but in a kind of second home. They wanted their temple to be not only a place where they would encounter God, but a place whose beauty reminded them that heaven was the most beautiful place imaginable; and that reminded them that this place was not God’s true home, and that the earth was not their true home.
When the temple was desecrated by the Greek pagans a couple of centuries before Christ, the people were horrified, not only because the temple itself was physically desecrated, but more importantly because they knew that God was no longer dwelling there. Even at the temple had been left alone in its physical beauty, the fact that an idol was put up in the holy of holies meant that God was no longer there, and that made it a place of desolation.
I have felt that sense of desolation once when entering a building which used to be a Catholic Church but was no longer in service, and there the tabernacle stood open and there was no lamp signifying the presence of Christ. No matter how beautiful the church might’ve been, without his presence it seemed like a place of desolation and emptiness. I thought about the desolation filled by the Jewish people when their temple was desecrated.
Today’s first reading recalls the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the pagans were driven out, and witness the great joy and happiness that filled the hearts of the Jewish people because God was once again making his home there in Jerusalem and the Temple. Once again, they could enter that beautiful temple and sense the presence of God and look forward to the heavenly Jerusalem, the temple of God in heaven.
So too, Christians, once they were no longer persecuted by the Roman Empire, would build their own magnificent temples in Rome and in many other places, where at least the Cathedral would display the beauty that anticipates the heavenly Jerusalem. But the Christian understanding of the temple would be much more expansive, for the presence of God would be much more expansive and much more concrete. Even in the simplest Christian churches, God would be present in a way that he never was in the Temple in Jerusalem, present in the Holy Eucharist as the extension of his incarnate presence in this world. So Christians would try to beautify even the smallest churches and chapels, even if that beauty could not match the greater churches in Christendom. The proportionate beauty of their little temples would remind them of heaven, and they possessed the beauty of the Redeemer himself present in their humble tabernacles. Christ was as much present their as he was in any basilica or cathedral church. The worship offered in the humblest church was equal to that offered in the greatest temples in Christendom, all because Christ was present and acting as both priest and victim.
But Christianity went far beyond the understanding of God’s Temple among the Jewish people, who had gone far beyond the pagan peoples that surrounded them. For Christians, the beauty of their churches not only pointed them toward “heaven above” but also toward “heaven within.” St. Paul had Taught this most clearly when he declared, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” The beauty of the churches in which Christians worship does not only point them toward the beauty of heaven, where God dwells, but inward toward the beauty of the temple of the Christian soul where God makes his final dwelling place. Where God dwells, there is heaven, and there is God’s beauty.
If only we could see the beauty of a single human soul where God indwells, by virtue of his grace, we would be more dazzled by that sight then by seeing the most beautiful of temples or churches in this world. The human soul has an architecture, levels of depth, just as the Temple of Jerusalem had an architecture where one passed through various spaces to reach the holy of holies where God dwelt in a special way, and where only the high priest could enter once a year. So too, in the human soul, God dwells in the deepest core, beyond the level of our senses, beyond the level of our intellectual powers, deep in the inner sanctum, where we can only encounter him in contemplation and in conscience. The presence of God in that inner sanctum illuminates the whole soul, but the light is most intense and most beautiful in the core of man’s spiritual being.
I remember long ago standing in the Cathedral of Chartres and gazing at its magnificent stained-glass illuminated by the streams of sunlight passing through the incredibly brilliant colors of that glass and illuminating the glorious stone work in that temple with a display of rainbow effects nothing natural could duplicate. Yet, if we could but see one soul illuminated by the divine light coming from the depths of that graced soul where God dwells, how much more startled we would be by its beauty, a beauty which is far beyond any natural qualities, a divine beauty that will only be perfected in God’s Heaven.
The only way that incredible interior beauty can be lost in this world is by expelling God from the soul by sin. What madness sin is would be easily understood if only we could but catch a glimpse of that inner beauty just once. Likewise, if we could only once glimpse that beauty, how tremendously we would be motivated to seek heaven, the kingdom of God, above all else. But we must live by faith in this world and trust that all this is true, that we really are God’s temple here and now, that heaven is already present in us in seed, and how unimaginably greater is what lies ahead.