In Jesus’ day when standing on the Mount of Olives there was one thing that dominated the skyline of Jerusalem – the Temple – hovering over the Old City, and visible from every balcony in the upper city. It was the great building project of King Herod the Great who enhanced the existing Temple to be a “wonder of the world.” The temple occupied a platform twice as large as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis. Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who gazed at them in bright sunlight risked blinding herself. It is no surprise that “… 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. It was a structure that held religious memory, anchored an identity as a people chosen by God. It was a sign of their Covenant with God. The Temple was the sign of the one, true God, home of scriptures and the commandments. The Temple and all it promised was their desire and fulfillment of their dreams.
Jesus saw something else. 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 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 they realize what/who they were standing with? Did they realize he was the one who should have dominated their “skyline.” Let’s not be too hard on the disciples – after all we know the rest of their story – He indeed dominates the skyline of their lives, leading them to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News of Salvation.
What about us? What attracts our eye, our desire, our dreams? What is a modern equivalent of costly stones and votive offerings? Our house or other material things? Our accomplishments? One of the other things feeds the external life we show to the world? As we look to our 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 sometimes not. 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 that: 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. A few 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 revealed God’s extraordinary grace. 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 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. You are a temple of the Spirit adorned with the compassion and loyal love of God. 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 with you. And after gazing upon God’s work – may it lead you to giving testimony.
Image credit: BibleProject, Public Domain