Third Sunday of Lent Year B
The evangelist in St John’s Gospel reading today (chapter 2) has Jesus condemning the traders in the temple grounds for turning God’s house into an “international marketplace” or “trading post” (emporion) rather than a “den of thieves”, or better “robbers” (spílaion listón), as in the other Gospels.
Rather than mounting a savaging critique of the robber barons of international commerce and finance, Father Chua employs the Gospel reading today to call for a clear return to the sacred in the worship conducted in our Catholic churches and for us to sacralise to a greater degree our increasingly secularised everyday lives; to become, in fact, countercultural and thus gain even more of Toad’s usual Boo, yuck! comments. (The incumbent of the diocese of Rome may well have gone with the savaging critique angle in his sermon today, I suggest.)
The gospel story is a familiar tale. We follow Jesus into the temple where he discovers in this august place of worship, the sacred axis of the Jewish faith, what looks like a mini zoo or money changer’s office. The outward reason for this set up was probably that the law required sacrifices of these animals, and many worshippers would not have brought their sacrifice with them. So this made the animals readily available for purchase. It was convenient. What about the money lenders? Well, they too provided a necessary service. Roman currency was considered profane and even sacrilegious since it depicted the profile picture of Caesar. Thus the moneychangers were not there to extort money from the poor pilgrims, but were providing a necessary service to exchange a pilgrim’s money into the right currency, not only to make a purchase of the holocaust animals but to pay the Temple tax. Worship could never be so convenient.
What was Jesus’ response to this scenario? The gospel tells us that making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with all the animals. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.” Jesus obviously did not approve of what he saw. Why not? What was the problem? Let’s examine the words of Jesus once more. “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
The word translated “market” is the Greek “emporion,” from which we get our English word, “emporium.” The temple was sacred; the market was secular. The laws of God governed the Temple, the laws of supply and demand governed the market. The sacred belongs wholly to God. There is a Latin maxim that describes the realm of the sacred, our experience of God, as “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” Most simply, God is the unfathomable Mystery before whom we are awestruck and stand trembling, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn into relationship with, attracted and fascinated in ways we cannot fully explain. The secular, on the other hand, is the profane world of man where he seeks to master and control. But here in the Temple, the lines were being blurred. “The Father’s house” had been turning “into a market.” Indeed the secular, the profane had gradually invaded the sacred leading to its destruction.
Sadly, in our own times the banal and vulgar have invaded our sanctuaries. Modern-day culture threatens once again to change the sacred into the secular when it begins to view the Church, marriage, the liturgy and other holy things through purely utilitarian and functional lenses. Economic and management models may be useful when they are used to analyse secular things; however, when they are used to analyse sacred things, they tend to make those things less than what God intended them to be. When we confuse the Temple with the market, we also confuse the two kingdoms, the City of God and the City of Man. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Church is not a purely human association or organisation, but the Mystical Body of Christ, the Universal Sacrament of Salvation and the People of God. As a People of God, the Church belongs ultimately to God rather than to man, and thus is not subject to the whims and fancies, personal likes and dislikes, styles and fashion of men.
The prophetic and radical action of Jesus in today’s gospel invites us to an honest and careful examination of our worship of God especially during this Lent. One of the pressing questions of today is whether our culture of worship has been so overtaken by the secular culture of irreverence. Today, irreverence is understood as something that is humorous or entertaining, which is the standard for acceptability, particularly when the irreverent defies any standards of decency or conventional mores. Holiness, on the other hand, is often viewed as a neurotic disorder. We can witness the invasion of the “market”, the “emporium” into the “house of prayer,” in the form of the loss of the sense of the sacred, both in how we pray the liturgy and the way we act or present ourselves within the church. Genuflection is one of the first aspects of worship to fall victim to this culture of irreverence. I guess it would eventually lead to the demise of the bow, which is often performed reluctantly, if at all. Then there is the descent into banality of our hymns that attempt to imitate contemporary styles of secular music. Sadly, because we are so immersed in an irreverent culture, the profane has been embraced by many of our members, who defend it as perfectly acceptable and normal. If it is good for the “market”, it should equally be good for the “Temple.”
With the excessive emphasis in many parishes on the horizontal to the exclusion of the vertical, churches and liturgy have become just another social gathering. If we only gather in church to socialise with our neighbour, then prayer and sanctity are not a priority, and the Church is perceived as being no different than other social organisations. Yet the Church and the Sacred Liturgy are about God and the Salvation He won for us in Christ. Everything we do should be ordered to that end.
Jesus Christ has chosen the Church for His Bride. The wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation describes the sacred liturgy of the Church. In the climax of her heavenly worship, the Bride reflects the image of the Bridegroom, who is Beauty Incarnate. But today, the world perceives beauty as purely subjective – “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For the Bride of Christ, however, beauty is a concrete and objective reality that stems from the Incarnation. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the twentieth century’s most notable writer on the theology of beauty, wrote, “We can be sure that whoever sneers at Beauty’s name . . . can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” Therefore, in order celebrate the sacred liturgy with due reverence and beauty, the Church must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, the Father’s house and the market.
If we are to be evangelists in today’s world, we can start by revering, honouring and living the sacred in our lives. Let’s begin with the Church, but let’s not stop here. Beyond a shadow of doubt, the reversal of this situation will necessarily come through the family, which is the domestic church. When there is a loss in the sense of the sacred, it is the family that suffers the most. Vatican II reminded everyone of the universal call to holiness, that is, to living the Sacred at all times and cultivating that holiness in the world around us. When we learn to treat the Temple as the Temple, we would also know how to gradually transform the “market” into the Temple, into the realm of the sacred. Thus, our homes, our workplace, our schools, can become places where we can encounter the sacred and the Divine.
Each of us can be a witness to Beauty by expressing the sense of the sacred by how we act, dress, and present ourselves before the Lord and one another. In a world in which the irreverent and profane have become the norm, someone who enters the church should be able to step out of that culture and experience that which is truly countercultural, that is, the sacred. The church must be that singular place in our society where the focus can be kept on what is most important – God. And those who remain focused on Christ grow into the sacred while those who turn from Christ grow into the profane. Yes the time of the Old Temple is no more. But the age of the New Temple, the Body of Christ, the Church is upon us. And as Church we must be a sacramental sign of the kingdom of reconciliation and love which, in communion with Christ, is established beyond any boundaries.