The events of this morning’s Gospel are unique in Sacred Scripture—unique in that they show our Lord displaying emotions that are recorded no where else. He approached the sacred city of Jerusalem and began to shed tears of remorse over the destruction which He knew would come upon it only a few decades hence, when the Romans would come very close, literally, to not leaving one stone standing on another—nearly total destruction. And then, He proceeded to the Temple, and became angry with what He saw there—angry to the extent of fashioning a whip to drive out the people who were trading in the House of God.
Remorse and anger—we really don’t see anything quite like these emotions anywhere else in the Gospels. There are other accounts that portray our Lord giving stern warnings to sinners that they should “sin no more.” But they betray no anger, whether the sinner was caught in adultery, or collecting taxes for the Romans, giving scandal to the young, or any of a dozen other offences—indeed, there is an element of rejoicing over the “sinner who repents”—not anger. We saw our Lord display the emotion of fear in the Garden of Gethsemane; we saw His anguish as He died on the Cross, begging forgiveness for His tormentors—but there was no trace of anger associated with those events.
To understand the significance of today’s Gospel (and the Epistle, too, but that will have to wait for another time), one must have general knowledge of the Old Testament. For in God’s plan of salvation, beginning with the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, Jerusalem and particularly the Temple in Jerusalem played a part unlike any other city and any other building in the world. It is necessary that we understand that the Temple was unique—completely different in purpose from any of the synagogues that were built in each of the towns and villages of Israel. A synagogue was nothing more than a meeting place—a simple room or two where the villagers and visitors would gather to read the Scriptures and to hear the educated men of the congregation comment about their meaning. The Temple was radically different.
To understand the Temple, we must recall that it was God Himself who personally led His people through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was the actual presence of God—the Shekinah, to use the Hebrew word—the presence of God, appearing as a pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night—always clearly visible to those frightened people in the desert.
We must recall, as well, that nothing surrounding God’s presence was haphazard. Even though they traveled through the desert, God commanded that, when they made camp, they would set up an elaborate sanctuary: tents made of fine linen, embroidered with purple and scarlet; walls made with fine wood, mounted on silver brackets; wooden furniture plated with gold; a solid gold lampstand, and golden vessels for the sacred rituals. The Holy Presence—God Himself, rested upon a portable throne of costly wood plated with gold.[ii] When they broke camp, all of this was carefully disassembled, stored, and carried to the next encampment. The throne, referred to as the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of God’s presence, was carried in solemn procession, leading the way. The Ark of God was built with metallic rings, through which passed wooden poles for the bearers to grasp—the Ark was so sacred that to touch it, even inadvertently in the line of duty, brought instant death.[iii] An entire tribe of Israel—all of the descendents of Levi—were assigned to care for the sacred items, and to offer the sacrifices prescribed by God in the Mosaic Law—everything was to be done with the utmost care and respect.[iv]
When the people entered the Promised Land, and after it was finally subdued in the reign of King David, the Sacred City of Jerusalem was chosen to be the permanent dwelling of God. And under David’s son Solomon, a permanent temple of stone was erected in accordance with God’s further exacting specifications.[v] It was very similar to the portable arrangement, but on a grander scale. God’s Presence became permanent in the innermost court of the Temple, called the “Holy of Holies.” On behalf of the Jewish people, the high priest could even enter, once a year, into this tabernacle, to reverently pronounce the sacred Name of God.
The Temple had to be re-built after the Babylonian captivity, and by the time of Jesus it had been richly refurbished by King Herod. The Ark had been lost during the captivity, but the divine Presence remained in the Holy of Holies, in the very spot revealed to King Solomon. It was the center of all official Jewish religious activity—the one unique place were sacrifices were offered before the divine Presence of God: a daily holocaust on behalf of all the people, the continuous offering of hot loaves of unleavened bread, sacrifices on behalf of individuals for sin or ritual guilt, sacrifices for the redemption of the first born son.[vi] The Temple was the unique place of pilgrimage—every Jew hoping to go there at least once in his life, if he lived far away—the place where those closer by might go several times a year for the great feasts. Again, the entire tribe of Levi was dedicated to seeing that everything concerning the worship of God was as perfect as humanly possible.
Even before the Incarnation, the Temple was the one place in the world where one could draw physically close to the Presence of God. The Gospels describe our Lord spending a lot of time at the Temple, even though the Holy Family lived in Nazareth, sixty or seventy miles to the north, a few days’ journey. Even more than the house of Joseph in Nazareth, Jesus could aptly refer to the Temple in Jerusalem as His “Father’s House.”
Knowing these things, we are able to understand the remorse and the anger of our Lord in today’s Gospel. He felt remorse because He Who was God, looked down upon the Sacred City and upon the Holy Building where He had spent centuries, favoring His chosen people with His Presence. He felt remorse because He knew that, very shortly, those same chosen people would deliver their God over to the Romans to be put to death. He felt remorse because He knew that, on that day, the curtain of the Holy of Holies would be ripped from the top down, and the Shekinah would never again reside in that sacred spot.
The anger, of course was righteous indignation. The buying and the selling of sacrificial animals was absolutely necessary if visitors from afar were to be able to make their offerings—likewise the money changing, as people needed to trade their Roman coins and other foreign money for the coin of Temple tribute. But these things could have been done outside, where they wouldn’t have spoiled the respect due to the solemn sacrifices and the Holy Presence. He was angry because, over those centuries, even the Jewish people had lost their understanding of the infinite value they possessed in the Temple—the infinite value of God, Whom they possessed in Himself. The Sacred had given way to the slipshod.
There is, of course, a most important lesson for us in this. As Catholics, we are the successors of the chosen people. God dwells in our churches with an even greater reality than the reality of the Presence in the Jerusalem Temple. Body and soul, humanity and divinity, Jesus Christ, God, the Son of God, comes down upon our altars, and remains truly and substantially present in our tabernacles. Not just once a year, but every day, we can reverently receive this substantial Presence within ourselves.
But, periodically, we must make an examination of conscience about the way in which approach God’s Sacred Presence in the tabernacle. We don’t want to be yet another source of remorse and anger for our long suffering Lord. We must be sure that we never become too familiar, too cold, or too distant that we lose our understanding of the infinite value which we possess in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
No one here sells goats; no one here is a money changer. Yet we ought to ask ourselves if we are treating God’s divine Presence with the importance and respect that is His due. My guess is that we all have some faults in this—and, insofar as we have faults, we, ourselves, are the best ones to correct them—not the priest, and not other parishioners, but we ourselves.
Do we come to Mass with eager anticipation of God’s Presence and the desire to receive Him in Holy Communion? Do we come as often as such eagerness would suggest we would? Do we arrive, not just on time, but early enough to be properly recollected when Mass starts ... and do we spend at least a moment or two in thanksgiving when Mass has ended? If a stranger were to see us on the way, would he recognize by our grooming, and our dress, and our modesty, and our decorum that we are on our way to visit Someone of great importance? Do we go to Confession frequently, and make a general effort to be in the state of grace? Are we generous with our money, our goods, and our labor so that the things about our altar are as perfect as humanly possible—or do we assume that “somebody else” will see to it? Do we pay attention to the little details, like genuflecting, and making the sign of the Cross, and singing the hymns, and making the responses? Do we take home with us an appreciation of God’s presence, so that we live our lives reverently until the next time we return?
Again, these are questions that we must ask ourselves, and which no one else can answer for us. We are God’s chosen people—both individually and collectively, we ought never give Him reason to feel remorse, let alone anger, about the way in which we visit Him in His House. The warning to the people of Jerusalem is equally a warning to us. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem ... if only you had known the things that are for your peace.” Listen to what Saint Paul says to us: “These things were written for our correction, upon whom the final age of the world has come ... God will not tempt us beyond our strength.”[vii] But we must never forget to use that strength. We must never again bring anger and remorse to our Lord—never again!
[i] Gospel: Luke xix: 41-47.
[ii] Exodus xxxv-xl.
[iii] 2 Kings vi: 6-10.
[iv] Numbers i-iv.
[v] 3 Kings vi-viii.
[vi] Leviticus i-vii, xii.
[vii] Epistle: 1 Corinthians x: 6-13.