A few weeks ago I watched a fascinating program on television about the crocodile god of ancient Egypt. The fishermen and farmers along the Nile lived in constant fear of being eaten by enormous and hungry crocodiles. And so temples were built and homage paid to the crocodile god. They made offerings to persuade the god to eat fish instead of fishermen.
That’s the basic idea of temple in the ancient world: a place to appease a god, a place to influence the actions of a god. Although it’s a big theological shift to the temple in ancient Jerusalem, the idea is pretty much the same. Animal sacrifices were made by the thousands year after year to worship the one true God, to influence his decisions, to flatter him with praise and thanksgiving, and to appease his anger at the misbehavior of human beings.
But even before the time of Christ the idea of temple was beginning to shift. The Hebrew prophets and the Psalms offer sharp critique of the animal sacrifice system (“…I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”, says the prophet; “you take no delight in burnt offerings…” the psalmist says) Already some hundreds of years before Christ we begin to see a shift in the idea of what a temple should be.
Then we see a major deconstruction and reconstruction: the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first Christians worshiped in the Jerusalem temple and may well have offered animal sacrifices, at least for a while. But the writings of the New Testament convey a profound shift: Christ’s offering of himself on the cross was the one perfect offering and rendered all the animal sacrifices unnecessary. To the extent that God required any sacrifice from human beings, it was made once and for all by Jesus, the perfect victim, the perfect priest.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” we hear Jesus say in the gospel. The old temple was indeed destroyed. The new temple is his body, the Body of Christ: we are the living stones of this spiritual temple. It is the Christian community that is the temple, even the individual human heart, wherein dwells the Spirit of God. “Come down, O Love Divine, seek thou this soul of mine”.
We see in the Hebrew scriptures, many, many references to the future: the blessing of having many descendants, the importance of passing down the tradition to the children and to the children’s children, down through the generations. There is the expectation and hope of descendants continuing far into the future.
In the New Testament references to descendants in a distant future virtually disappear. The early Christians believed that Christ was coming again soon and that everything would change. But, as we know now, there was a delay. Christians began to realize that we’re in it for the long haul. Maybe a very long haul. So, we begin to see new temples. Physical temples, church buildings made of stone. Some humble, some magnificent. Some of breathtaking beauty. Hagia Sophia in what is now Istanbul. The great Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe. Built for the ages.
The idea of what a temple can be has gone through deconstruction and reconstruction, renovation. Some demolition here, some building up there; cleaning up, cleaning out. The readings for today capture the idea of temple in flux, under renovation. Where do we find ourselves today? Is our idea of temple under renovation?
We happen to be renovating this building, this temple. There’s been demolition and construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. That’s what renovating is. As we look forward to using this chapel again, we might reflect on our vision for this place. To renovate means to make new again. How will we make this very special place new again, not only in its materials, but in its poetry?
Here are some of my thoughts. Our chapel will indeed be a place of sacrifice, but of a particular kind: a place of our own self-offering. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we renew the offering of our selves, our souls and bodies. And we do this in union with Christ, who made the one all-sufficient oblation of himself. This is an old thing, of course, but returning to the chapel may be the occasion for renewal, for renovation, for making our self-offering in new ways.
Our chapel will be a place of welcome, of hospitality: “a house of prayer for all people”, as an ancient Hebrew prophet put it. Again, an old idea, but returning to this place of prayer will be the occasion for renewing this vision.
The great church buildings of the past were built “to the greater glory of God”. But also to the greater glory of our humanity. Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” We see in the building of great temples a vibrancy, a delight in the possibilities of the human enterprise. The great gothic cathedrals were built for the worship of God, of course. But their sheer exuberance reflects a growing confidence in the dignity of our humanity. There is direct continuity between these extraordinary creations of the Middle Ages and the vibrant humanism of the Renaissance.
Our chapel will be a place that continually renews our sense of possibility, the possibility of a growing aliveness, a growing wholeness—for ourselves, and for the human condition we inhabit. Our chapel will convey a sense of expansiveness, of confidence in the human-and-divine enterprise. Beautiful buildings have always done that. Returning to this one will be an occasion to reflect on the human enterprise in new ways.
The beautiful temples of the past have been messages to the future. There’s an inscription below the statue of Alma Mater at my alma mater (the University of Illinois): “To thy happy children of the future those of the past send greetings.” This building will be our greetings to the future. And not only our greetings, but our message. A message of what we hold dear, what we value, what we want those who come after us to know.
So this temple, we see, is an angel; it has an angelic role. An angel is a messenger; temples become angels—or, at least, angelic in function. What we do here in stone and light becomes our message, our annunciation, our angelic message to those yet unborn. The stone and light of this chapel will be an angelic presence to all who enter, even to all who pass by, for a long time into the future.
Angels point beyond themselves to a greater Truth, a greater Love, a greater Light, a greater Life. If this beautiful chapel, this holy temple, is an angel, how might we summarize his message? God himself is with us. We are the True Temple wherein dwells True Light, True Life, True Love, the True God. It is we ourselves who are the Temple.
And, O, “How lovely is thy dwelling place”, “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts…” , O “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts, to me.”