Third Sunday of Lent

WHAT WALLS CAN’T CONTAIN

John Dalla Costa

Last week’s account of the Transfiguration on Tabor was experienced as wondrous yet fearful. Today, at the Temple, we find Jesus transformed again, himself becoming fearsome. Pope Francis recently preached that Lent is for jarring us. This gospel certainly does that.

Over-turning the tables of the currency-traders is told by all four evangelists. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this holy tantrum occurs near the end of their gospels. It becomes the decisive reason for authorities to execute Jesus. John has a very different narrative trajectory. Jesus actually begins his public ministry with this audacious confrontation. The break with the Jerusalem powers is therefore his decision, not theirs; his motivation, not their reaction. John’s community had suffered a painful expulsion from the synagogue for proclaiming Jesus, so in this gospel, temples cannot be accommodated. They must always be left behind.

Only John describes Jesus fashioning a whip of cords. Only John mentions cattle in the courtyard. And only John depicts Jesus resorting to so threatening a gesture. We can remember other moments when Jesus gets frustrated or angry, but we need to pay close attention when the teacher of the Beatitudes does not turn the other cheek.

What so arouses Jesus’ ire is the desecration of God’s House. Today’s first reading tells of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments of covenant between God and Israel. David began building the first Temple to house those sacred tablets of the Ark of the Covenant. As a faithful Jew, Jesus recoils at the commercialization for basically transgressing the first three commandments against idolatry.

In his anger, Jesus is also enacting the wisdom from Proverbs and the Psalms. He is incarnating the prophetic warning from Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah. God desires not burnt offerings. God only wants hearts. Not transaction, but relationship.

The scriptural theologian Raymond Brown adds important context. As we know from when Mary and Joseph offered two doves in sacrifice for the birth of Jesus, the Temple was basically an abattoir. According to Rabbinic sources, to keep the Temple pure, the larger animals to be slaughtered – such as sheep, cattle, and oxen – were usually stabled outside the walls, in the Kidron Valley. During Passover, people from all over the world thronged to Jerusalem to offer the prescribed sacrifices. In a move that bitterly divided the chief priests of that time, the beasts and birds were sometimes brought into the courtyard of the Temple to better control the trade in sacrificial animals.

Stepping into the muck of a barnyard, Jesus steps knee-deep into the mucky politics of the Temple. Note that when Jesus goes Indiana Jones with his whip, the Jews do not question why. Many would agree that the Temple was being defiled. What they questioned was Jesus’ authority – his identity, and integrity.

John’s gospel now completes the rupture. The Temple is no longer a place. It is now a person. Henceforth, whoever hears the Word is on sacred ground; whoever holds that Word in their heart houses the holiest of holies.

Jesus will leave Jerusalem, and take up his vagrant ministry – with nowhere to lay his head. He will resume the mobility, and accessibility, of when Israel’s God was abiding in a nomadic tent. This intimate accessibility has consequences. Perhaps the most disturbing line in today’s haunting gospel is that Jesus did not entrust himself to those who turned to him after his wondrous signs. Why? In part, because, like sacrifices, signs bespeak a motivation based on calculation and transaction. Jesus offers holy presence. Jesus desires only to be received. Our lenten task is to prepare to be entrusted; to be ready to make our life’s journey containing his holiness.

Last week, Ann Marie invited us to be penetrated by the light of the Transfiguration. We gazed together at the evocative painting of everyday saints, and also glimpsed the light in our own Zoom-gallery of faces. What stayed with me is that each of you, each of us, is like a monstrance. Being displaced, as we now are by the pandemic, does not impede holiness, because each of you, and each of us, have the capacity – in welcoming Christ – to expose the Blessed Sacrament to the world.

In that sense, while Lent is for deconstructing our empty temples, it is also the time to fashion ourselves spiritually to be the monstrance – the holy container, for radiating Christ.

What do I know about making monstrances? Actually, by happy accident, more that I ever imagined. The man who lives across the street from us is a bit of grumpy character. Our neighbours warned us to be wary of him, but all that changed when I learned that Claudio is a goldsmith, renowned throughout Italy for crafting the most exquisite monstrances and reliquaries.

Claudio’s studio, one door away from us, is like a medieval torture chamber, bristling with strange tongs and tools. Without violating any trade secrets, making a monstrance is an act of devotion.

The first step is to melt the gold of our idols – to melt those worries, failures, ambitions, and wounds that distract us from God.

Once our gold is molten, we cast the container for Jesus with our talents – to our design, for our vocation, inspired and sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As the radiant fingers and filaments of our monstrance cools, we need to file away the impurities, and gently hammer the scared vessel into the shape only we can make.

And with prayer, the final step is to polish that of us that receives Jesus, so that it shines, and gleams, and radiates wonder for all who behold it.