The ancient Jews had two places of prayer. After the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek by the seventy scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, the synagogue system grew steadily throughout the Mediterrean world. By Jesus’ time, the neighborhood synagogue was the local gathering place where every Sabbath the Scriptures were read, hymns were sung, prayers were offered and words of comfort and guidance were gratefully heard. Yet, while the scattered Jewish community had many houses of prayer, they boasted only one temple, the proud structure in the heart of Jerusalem originally built by Solomon and then re-constructed in Jesus’ time by King Herod.
The temple in Jerusalem, whose celebrated Western Wall endures uniquely to this day, replaced the meeting tent or tabernacle that sheltered the very Presence of God as the Jews trekked through the Sinai desert for forty years. For the Jews, the tent and then the temple were indeed God’s dwelling place, literally heaven on earth. Just as God dwelt in the “temple of the skies,” so too did God dwell in Solomon’s majestic temple. The Jewish nation streamed toward the temple on all the major feast days. The Gospel accounts record Jesus doing so from his own presentation in the temple as an infant to his final journey to Jerusalem before his death. The temple was prized real estate.
A service of the word could indeed be celebrated throughout the Jewish world in synagogues remarkable or routine, but ritual sacrifices could only be offered in the temple in Jerusalem. The Scribes and Pharisees did their work in the synagogues and on street corners and in private homes. But the priests, the sons of Levi, could only exercise their ministry in the temple. When the Jerusalem temple was quite viciously destroyed by Roman troops in 70 A.D., all ritual sacrifices permanently ceased. Judaism became a cult of the Word guided by rabbis and no longer a religion of sacrificial liturgies offered by priests. The temple was in ruins; sacrifices were missing; the high holy days become shallow; the work of Abraham, Moses and David stunted. What was the true believer to do?
Jesus happily has reassuring words for all true believers. “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. The Jews said, This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days? But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (Jn 2:19-21). Yes, the new temple was the Body of Christ and not only his resurrected, glorified Body but, even more expansively, his Mystical Body. Yes, the believing Church throughout the world is indeed the Body of Christ and the new temple. St. Paul instructs the Corinthians in the same fashion: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1Cor 3:16).
Just as surely as the ancient sacrifices had to be offered within the Jerusalem temple, so it is equally fitting that the New Testament sacrifices also be offered within the temple that is Christ’s Mystical Body, the temple of God, the Church community. Jesus had first offered the sacrifice of his Body and Blood in the midst of a believing community, his twelve apostles, gathered around the Paschal banquet table in the Upper Room. They formed the first temple of the New Covenant. The early Church continued to gather as a community forming a new temple every Sunday in which to renew the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Wishing to emphasize this fundamental belief that the whole Church, clergy and laity, form a new temple in every generation, the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council moved the altar of sacrifice away from the back wall of Catholic churches and nearer to the heart of the community, nearer to the center of the spiritual temple, the people of God.
St. Peter in this Sunday’s epistle again stresses the image of the Church as God’s temple: “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The order of worship in today’s church rightly includes the people of God as greeters, readers, gift bearers, servers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, choir members, and communicants, all living stones forming the new temple in whose midst the once and for all sacrifice is being offered. Every Sunday, every day, the Eucharistic Lord graciously descends into the midst of his people who are the new temple, the new center of sacrifice, the new dwelling place of God with man.
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