The sense of the sacred
(Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
Introduction to Mass
In today's gospel Jesus angrily attacks the money-changers in the temple: a well-known episode. Like the Old Testament prophets before him Jesus denounced the impurities which often crept into religious practice. He had a strong sense himself of the sacred significance of religious objects like the Temple, and objected vehemently when this significance was diminished. "This is God's House, not a market-place".
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
The first reading this Sunday, from the book of Exodus in the Old Testament, is part of the story of the founding of the Jewish faith.
We know the sequence of events: Moses, summoned and inspired by God, led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the desert, and during the long period they spent in the desert God inaugurated his Covenant with them and made them his Chosen People.
The Covenant made demands on them and the first reading this Sunday gives a list of some of the most important of those demands, the Ten Commandments.
In those early years of their existence as a distinct community the Chosen People were still putting behind them some of the primitive beliefs they had entertained about God, and that wasn't a quick or easy process. They were always being tempted to abandon the true God, the God of the Covenant, and to embrace the pagan gods instead. That temptation is dramatised very vividly, a few chapters later in Exodus, in the episode where they make the golden calf and start to worship it.
Later on in their history they fell into a more subtle temptation: the temptation to believe that, with a good conscience, they could somehow worship their own God and the pagan idols.
The Old Testament prophets reserved some of their most passionate criticism for that tendency and they insisted instead on complete purity of worship, and complete faithfulness to the religion of their ancestors.
In fact that is the essence of prophetic criticism in the Old Testament. The word 'prophet' means someone who speaks out: the prophets were individuals who said uncomfortable things and confronted the community at large about their lack of faith and their moral compromises. Often they aimed their fiercest criticisms at the religious leaders, because they had more responsibility than the ordinary people
So the Old Testament prophets weren't men who wanted to modernise religious faith or make it more flexible, less demanding, or more open to outside influences. The prophets were almost the opposite of that. They were men who were especially alert to signs that the community was forgetting about God, drifting away from the values and purposes God had given them.
When they saw that happening, their reaction was to call for a purifying of faith and a turning back - a return - to genuine belief and worship, a turning back to God. "Turn back to God with all your heart" is the constant appeal of the prophets, the thread that runs through all their preaching.
If we move onto the gospel story we find Jesus going into the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and being met with a situation which he also saw as an affront to genuine worship of God and another subtle form of idolatry. His reaction was to make a gesture which was very much in the tradition of the prophets.
There were two things which Jesus found objectionable about the presence of the money changers and the salesmen in the Temple.
One was the commercialisation of religion, using God to make money, especially by exploiting the faith of the poorest people who could only afford the cheapest sacrifices, the doves and the pigeons.
The other aspect of the situation which seemed to enrage Jesus was the secularization, as we would now call it, of a building intended to give glory and honour to God: the building in fact, the Temple in Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish religion and a symbol of their faith.
"Stop turning my Father's House into a market," Jesus says, in this version of the episode, from Saint John's gospel. In Saint Luke's version of the story, Christ's language is even fiercer: "The Scriptures say, my house shall be a house of prayer," he says. "But you have turned it into a den of robbers".
Christ's indignation was rooted in his strong sense that the Temple was a building given over or consecrated to God. This made it different from other buildings. It made it a sacred object, an object which only had value because it was associated exclusively with God and activities centred on God: worship, prayer, sacrifice.
And that sense of Jesus' - a sense of sacred presence in the midst of human society - is the aspect of this prophetic gesture which contains one of the main lesson for us today, in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, as a Church.
Conventional Christian faith has long been in decline, in our part of the world at least, and one of the ideas which has come to be fashionable instead is the idea that 'the sacred' is not restricted to certain objects or certain buildings or places, but that God is everywhere - he's in nature, he's in other people, and that we can experience God without resorting to the traditional symbols and images of the sacred.
The other side of the same coin is to take a very favourable attitude towards purely secular values. 'You don't have to believe in God to be a good person' is a sort of catchphrase that sums up this whole tendency.
Now on one level these notions are true: God is everywhere, you can be a good person without believing in God. But I think experience shows that when we remove the distinction between the sacred and the secular, we don't increase people's sense that everything is sacred.
Removing all the symbols of God doesn't encourage people to discover a deep awareness of God's presence everywhere. The tendency is more that God disappears from the picture completely, and he becomes a forgotten figure even to those who call themselves believers.
In the history of the Church, and in the history of all the great world religions, men and women who have increased their knowledge of God and been drawn more closely into God's life, have not usually distinguished themselves by a casual or flippant attitude to the various symbols of God's presence, or by arguing that we can do without them altogether.
They tend to put quite a high value on the symbols of God as a way of constantly keeping him in mind. In the case of the great Catholic mystics and saints they were always especially devoted to Christ present in the Eucharist.
It's a mistake to think that faith in God is easy to cultivate. For most people it's much easier for their faith in God to dwindle and fade out altogether. We need special objects, rituals, language, buildings to stop that from happening, to strengthen our sense of the sacred, and point us to the reality that lies behind the symbols - God himself.
So one lesson we can take from today's gospel is: let's not undervalue the symbols of our own faith. Let's use them in the way they're intended to be used: to point us to God, to stop God from dropping below the level of our vision, to deepen our awareness of his presence and to draw us unto his life. When we do that we're taking heed of the protests raised time and again by the great prophetic figures, and by Christ himself.