Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12 1st Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17 John 2:13-22
St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, in Rome. Its full title is the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in the Lateran. As a location for the gathering of the sacred liturgical assembly, the place called “The Lateran” dates from the era when Christianity was first officially tolerated and legalized in the Roman Empire. So, in a theological sense, it has become a symbolic mother of all parish churches. This is why there is a festival in honor of that particular ancient parish location. It reminds us that good liturgical worship is the primary focus of all Gospel life. In the ancient Catholic and Orthodox Traditions, the saving Gospel relationship is “we and Jesus the Christ” rather than “me and Jesus.” It is the Gospel community’s fellowship which is the first “real presence” of Christ: “Wherever two or three gather in my (Jesus’) name, there I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). Only once the sacred assembly is constituted, then can the other styles of Christ’s “real presence” occur: in the proclamation of the Sacred Scriptures in a Liturgy of the Word, and in the celebration of any of the Seven Sacraments, most frequently in the Eucharist. And, finally, in the Dismissal Rites from all the Sacraments disciples are “sent” (i.e., “missioned”) back into the wider world to be and to announce the Gospel and saving Presence of Christ!
All three scripture readings today use a temple metaphor, but in both Paul and John the metaphor is made explicitly as a reference to Christian believers and to Jesus, respectively. Ezekiel was one of those major prophets who ministered during the era of the decline and fall of the southern Kingdom of Judah in the late 600s and first decades of the 500s BC. He witnessed the capture of Jerusalem, the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple of Solomon, and then their respective destructions by the army of Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II. At some time after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, Ezekiel experienced today’s vision of hope in which the Temple was once again restored as the religious center of the earthly Glory of God and the center of a balanced Jewish life. Indeed, in ancient Israel, the Temple served multiple and important functions: as a place of worship, as a storehouse for food and resources on the proverbial “rainy day,” as a savings bank, and as a principal source of charitable social services to those in need. The Temple was the at the center of Jewish religious, economic, and societal life. It had provided important social services in the form of charity for the needy for centuries. Ancient Jewish culture embodied a Torah socialism which became the basis for Gospel socialism proclaimed by Jesus, Paul, and the Church still today. Gospel socialism and its social conscience are essential requirements for all who embrace the genuine Gospel of Christ! We might say, “Poor communal care; poor faith! Healthy communal care; healthy faith!” Ezekiel’s vision was the antidote to and balance against the devastating destruction visited upon Judah and Jerusalem as the Babylonian Captivity swallowed up all the blessings of Judaism for the next half century. His vision announced hope in a future restoration of God’s Chosen People to their homeland and religious way of life. The vision’s Temple had some of the qualities that were in the legendary Garden of Eden before the introduction of evil and sin in the mythic world of Genesis 1 and 2. Thus, Ezekiel’s was a voice of hope that God would somehow make right, and even improve upon, what had come to exist in his day. He pointed to a future salvation from the then current overwhelming messiness of life.
In today’s Gospel narrative, Jesus’ appreciation of the Temple’s holiness is described. In spite of his zealous anger, the “money changers” served a very important role, as did the vendors of sheep and oxen. Money changers exchanged Imperial Roman coinage which bore images of the emperor stamped on them. Jewish worshipers, especially those on pilgrimage from far away, often purchased items for sacrifice at the Temple, once they arrived. The ordinary coins in use were Roman and bore images of the emperors past and current. Since Roman culture had come to claim that living emperors were divine, such images were considered idolatrous by the Jews. In order to buy and sell items for temple sacrifice in Jerusalem, Roman coins were exchanged for coins specifically minted without such images, hence avoiding participation in idolatry at least on Temple grounds. Vendors of sheep and oxen sold animals for Temple sacrifices and thus served a good and necessary purpose for Jewish pilgrims who came to worship. On that day in today’s narrative, a zealous Jesus seems to have become suddenly intolerant of and irritated at the messiness of actual Temple operations. He cried out for a kind of immediate reform of the ordinary. Quickly, when challenged, the Temple setting became a lesson and metaphor for theological reflection. Memory of such an exchange was treasured by Jesus’ post-resurrection disciples, but clearly it was interpreted differently by those with whom he argued on the occasion. As the early Christian Church became less and less Jewish and more and more Gentile, the original nuance of this narrative was lost on Gentile Christian ears. It is important for us to see the bigger picture so as to appreciate Jesus’ zeal, especially in our 21st Christian Century which is already famous for religious extremism, narrow literalism, and some rather superstitious ritual and devotional practices. Today’s extremism has no connection to Jesus’ zeal! His was a healthy desire for legitimate and timely reform. Healthy Christians always embrace forward-directed reform: Ecclesia semper reformanda! (Translation: The Church is always changing!) Reform and change are healthy and Grace-filled signs of life! Superstition is a sign of unhealthy religious faith, sometimes even bordering on mental illness and inappropriate cultural craziness.
Paul explicitly used the temple metaphor for the Corinthian Christians: “You are the temple of God.” He was chastising them for being divisive and argumentative over unimportant issues. His antidote for the scandal of divisiveness was an increased awareness of the disciples’ call to holiness by the Gospel message. To be divisive diminished both the individual and the communal holiness on which the proclamation of the Gospel message depended. Indeed, even the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council acknowledged that part of the failure of the spread of the Gospel in the world had to do with the poor examples of Christians themselves. Who would want to embrace the Gospel and join the Church if Christians destroy one another?! The Council asserted that the growth of atheism came much from anti-Gospel examples of Christians’ own poor behavior! Paul’s exhortation to remember the necessary connection between discipleship and holiness was a timely reminder to his own. It is still so to us today!
For too many, the word “church” ordinarily refers to the building in which the Church meets. The word “basilica” is a Latin word from the Greek for “kingdom hall.” It was the imperial court building in which the emperor or his delegate would hear court cases and render legal decisions. We would do well to remember that a church building is really “the house for the Church” rather than “the house of God,” for no building can truly “contain” God in any limiting sense of that word. The Church, that is the communal fellowship of believing disciples, meets in the kingdom hall, i.e., in the house for the Church. Because the community meets there, God’s Holy Presence is in that place. Paul wrote, “...the Spirit of God dwells in you...” The “you” here is second person plural referring to the liturgical assembly. Today’s festival points out that where two or three (or more) Christians gather, there Christ is indeed among them. The Church did without designated church buildings for nearly three centuries before Imperial Roman legalization. The Church very effectively embraced and proclaimed the Gospel even without such permanent settings. The Gospel belongs to the Church and churches belong to the Church. The baptized disciples are the Body of Christ, the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit, and the Church alive!.
Blessed Feast Day to all parochial communities! For it is the constant proclamation of the Gospel message in the parish assembly that hope is announced most fully to the world by the witness given by your active disciples!