In Jesus’ day there was one thing that dominated the skyline of Jerusalem – the Temple – easily seen from across the way on the Mount of Olives, hovering over the Old City, and visible from every balcony in the upper city. It wasn’t the original Temple, that had been destroyed some 600 years before by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. This the second temple. Construction started about 520 years before Jesus’ time but it was King Herod the Great who make the temple a “wonder of the world.” While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings (Luke 21:5).
And so there are the disciples taking in the view – the Temple and all its glory. They looked at the Temple and saw one thing. Jesus looked at the Temple and saw another.
The disciples saw the eternal wonders and recalled the history. The Temple had once held the Ark of the Covenant, their sign of the everlasting covenant with God. The temple has once been the place where the kings of Israel would assemble the people and read to them the words of the Covenant and have them recommit themselves to it relationships with God. The Temple was the sign of the one, true God, home of scriptures and commandment. It was the site where heaven and earth touched. It was like the rock of Gibraltar. It was the one place you could count on – in good times or in bad.
We can get a sense of what Jesus saw when he looked at the Temple. He knew history. Babylon had destroyed it all. Some 40 years later, Rome would destroy it again. Even the rocks of Gibraltar crumble and fade. Even the most solid of man-made temples fall to the ground. But the true beauty, the things of God, endure forever.
Even as the disciples looked to the skyline and the Temple – did the realize what/who they were standing with?
Jesus who is the covenant with God – the alpha and the omega – the everlasting one. The one who is the Word make flesh. The one whose life and ministry was a pubic reading of the Covenant with God and its true understanding: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors…but I say to you….” [Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:21-22]. The one in who heaven and earth touched: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us [literally, “pitched his tent”], and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The one upon whom you can count – in good times and in bad.
The one who should have dominated their “skyline.”
Lets not be too hard on the disciples – after all we know the rest of the story – Jesus’ death, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven – yet what dominates the skyline of our lives? What attracts our eye, our desire, our dreams? What is a modern equivalent of costly stones and votive offerings? Too often we measure our lives and loves by the costly adornment – the look of our house, our car, our spouse, our children, our accomplishments, our memberships, our whatever it is that feeds the external life we show to the world.
Even as we look to the skyline and whatever serves as our personal temple – do we not realize who we are standing with?
As St. Paul writes: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Co 3:16). Part of Jesus’ words are to remind us to set our sights on the one, lasting temple that God builds in our hearts.
The foundation of this new inner temple begins at baptism. From there, it is a long, slow, building project that sometimes gets our cooperation and other times our rejection. Think about all the gospels since Easter. They have been about “our cooperation”, about discipleship – which is another name for the choices we make to allow God to build the lasting temple in our hearts.
And God is a faithful, steady worker. God promises to build us up in ways that bring us joy and peace but may also bring us scorn and sorrow – just as our gospel today says. We can never completely know the structure of God’s life within us –but too often we do not take enough time to pause and gaze upon that temple within. Having never really seen the beauty within us, we sell ourselves short or think of ourselves incapable of revealing a sense of beauty not made by human hands.
When do we stop, pause, and look within? When I think about my life there have been at least three gifts of time when I was able to deeply pause and look within. The first was during my time in the Navy – there are some aspects of submarine service that are very monastic. The next was years later while serving on mission – when the sun goes down at 7pm, there are hours to think, pray and wonder in the candlelight of evening. The third was the year of being a Franciscan novice – whose basic intent is exactly to stop, pause, and look within.
Sometimes it is not the gift of time, but the circumstances that leads one to look within. Our active duty service men and women, and our veterans know that all too well. Years ago HBO hosted a special called “Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq.”
The show featured letters written by soldiers to their families – written as it were, in the end of days. Some were letters to be opened “just in case.” Some were just part of a regular series of letters that happened to be the last letter. Like the one from Michelle Witmer of New Berlin, WI. which arrived the day after her parents had learned of her death. Some were sudden insights when soldiers discovered within them a depth of love and gratitude heretofore unknown. Such was the letter from Rasheed Haight of Bayshore, NY.
What is remarkable about the individual letters, or the series of letters, is the increasing depth of their thoughts – the revelation of the beauty of the inner temple built by God’s grace. These letters expressed the soldiers’ love of family members, love of God, and their hope for healing and redemption. In the midst of war, nation rising against nation, and among all their struggles, as the gospel says, I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking . Their letters speak of that Spirit given wisdom
These soldiers are not canonized saints. They were not mystics or sages. They were ordinary people who reveal God’s extraordinary grace. But they were people who took the opportunity to pause and look inward to the extraordinary temple within and discover the temple not built by human hands. And in their letters they gave their testimony (21:3). And like all testimony, to hear the words of these letters was to hear the work of God expressed in the depths of the human heart; to hear these words was to share in the revelation of a temple made but in God’s image and likeness.
This is what is at work in you. Begun in baptism where the sure foundation of Christ in the Spirit was laid. Brick upon brick has been added in the love of parents and in their example of Christian virtue. Slowly the temple rises within in celebration of the sacraments, in prayer, in praise and glory of God. God is a tireless worker. Today, in this Eucharist, your inner temple continues to be built. Inner beauty, holiness – these are not the province of a few, but a temple given to many.
This is God’s project within you. When was the last time you took a look? May God bless you with the grace of time, the grace of circumstance or whatever grace you need to gaze upon His most holy work – the temple within you. And after gazing upon God’s work – may it lead you to giving testimony.