A message for everyone, especially the Upper Schoolers at Roanoke Catholic
In the Old Covenant, in order to celebrate the Passover feast, you had to travel to Jerusalem.
Who reigned as King of Judea at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem? Herod the Great. Herod built a huge Temple courtyard, and he put the entrance to the south. Why? Maybe because he himself hailed from the south, from Idumea.
Anyway, it’s all in ruins now, of course. But in the ruins of the southern steps to the ancient Jerusalem Temple, what do we find? Ritual baths. Anyone know what they are called? Mikveh.
In order to ascend to the Temple to celebrate the holy feast of Passover, you had to undergo a cleansing. And, of course, it was not just an exterior cleansing. The ritual bath involved interior repentance for sin.
When does our Passover feast of the New Covenant begin? This Sunday! Palm Sunday. We do not have to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of Christ. We just have to go to the local parish church.
We do need repentance and purification, however, in order to celebrate the feast worthily, with upright hearts. Just like the ancient Israelites needed repentance and purification in the old days.
We don’t insist on ritual baths. Just a good, honest, humble confession.
This video goes a long way to showing just how deadly boring Holy Land archaeology can be. (The longest summer I ever spent was a sun-drenched February afternoon at the Sepphoris archaeological park in Galilee.) But the video has some interesting info. re: mikvot.
Not sure if everyone knows that the city of Jerusalem sits on the brink of chaotic violence at this moment.
I laid eyes on the Dome of the Rock myself, up close, on Feb. 24, 2008. I wanted to see the place where Abraham obeyed God unto the edge of utter darkness. But: having a Roman cassock on gets you waved off by the Jordanian guards right quick…
This evening, on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff misidentified the Dome of the Rock, calling it the Al-Aksa Mosque (which sits 100 yards south of the site of the near-sacrifice of Isaac). An understandable mistake. But at the same time, quite telling–when it comes to our utter ignorance, as Americans, of what we are dealing with.
If I might, an amateur’s dime-store history for you:
Abraham climbed the mountain with Isaac, but God wound up providing the lamb for sacrifice. Centuries later, Solomon built on this site, and the sweet scent of burning oblations began to ascend at the appointed hours.
After Babylon leveled the Temple, the Israelites rebuilt. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great enlarged the humble Second Temple and made it a wonder of the world.
Zechariah (of the New Testament) found himself struck dumb here, because he didn’t believe he could father John the Baptist. Our Lord frequented this site often, as we read. But the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant took place outside the then-walls of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which houses Golgatha also) lies west of the Temple Mount, a good twenty-minute walk through the maze of Old-City streets.
Thus, the journos’ claim that the Temple Mount is holy to Christians, just like Jews and Muslims: Not exactly, not exactly. It is exceedingly imprecise to refer to the Temple Mount as a Christian holy site. We have no particular designs on worshiping there.
Anyway, back to the dime-store history: Rome leveled Jerusalem in the first and second centuries of the Age of Grace. The western wall of Herod’s temple survived. After Constantine converted to Christianity, Jerusalem had a few centuries as a Christian city.
Mohammed consecrated the Temple-Mount site for his followers in some way that I neither know nor understand.
A millennium later, under Turkish rule, the Status Quo was established. I am in no way an expert on this, but I think I can safely summarize: On a certain date, about half a millennium ago, Jews of various kinds prayed in various places, and in various ways, and at various times of day (and week and year) in Jerusalem; Christians of different kinds did the same; Muslims of different kinds also. The way they prayed at that time was enshrined as the norm, and it cannot be changed.
The Status Quo enjoys the beautiful authority of having been established by none of the partisans, and–at this point in time–it also has history behind it. It is the delicate and precarious arrangement that keeps the peace in every holy place in the holiest city in the world.
If you have never visited, you cannot adequately imagine just how up-close-and-personal the realities of the Status Quo are. There is literally no elbow room, no room for error; the people on either side of the lines established by the Status Quo can smell each other, and I am not exaggerating. The first time I ever entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I wanted to pray in the Golgatha Chapel. For five minutes I could, but then I had to leave, since I am a Roman Catholic priest, and the Status Quo prohibits us being in that chapel when the Orthodox have their evening prayers. Muslims meditating among the trees between Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock literally stand on top of Jews praying at the Western Wall. “Cramped” does not even begin to describe the religious reality of Jerusalem.
To modern times… After the Holocaust, the Western world fully embraced the Zionist enterprise, and the nation-state of Israel received international approbation and support. But Jerusalem did not make up part of the original land. Jerusalem and environs remained in a unique category (I guess, like the Vatican). To this day, our official US policy does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city. (Israel took control of Jerusalem in 1967.)
For some time now, Jerusalem has been a relatively safe place. No reasonable person would hesitate to travel there as a Christian pilgrim. That appears to be on the verge of changing. To read of an Israeli-Palestinian gunfight in the neighborhood that immediately abuts the site of the Last Supper (and the Assumption of our Lady; they are right around the corner from each other)–this is chilling news. The Israeli police disturbed the Status Quo by asserting authority (which, in fact, the sovereign of Jordan actually possesses) and shutting the Temple-Mount mosque today. Palestinians appear to be mustering for mischief.
Today’s gospel reading at Holy Mass offers us a good warm-up for Sunday’s gospel. Today we hear the Lord Jesus refer to
Zechariah, who died between the altar and the temple building.
Let’s clarify a couple things: First, apparently the altar for animal sacrifice stood outside the original Temple of Solomon. The burning flesh of the lambs and other animals rose from the courtyard up to the heavens.
Second, of which Zechariah does the Lord speak here? How many Zechariahs appear in the Holy Scriptures? 1. Zechariah, father of ________. John the Baptist! 2. Zechariah, son of Berechiah, who prophesied when the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. And 3. Zechariah, son of Jehoida, who lived 2 ½ centuries before that.
Zechariah, son of Jehoida, condemned the people of Jerusalem for worshiping pagan idols. He warned the people that the Lord had abandoned them—because they had abandoned the Lord. Instead of listening to his righteous warnings, they stoned him to death in the temple courtyard.
Now, the connection with Sunday’s gospel reading is this: When Zechariah lay dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge.”
We can see why Zechariah would have said that. Here he was, a faithful teacher of the Law of Moses, defending the honor of God in the Lord’s own Temple—and he meets a cruel death at the hands of bad people solely because he was trying to open the door to God for them. So he prayed that the world would not descend into total meaningless chaos, but rather that the Lord act to restore justice.
This sounds like the widow we will hear about in Jesus’ parable on Sunday, the widow who pleads insistently to the judge: “Render a just decision for me against my adversary!”
We live in the great age of mercy, when all sins can be forgiven because of the blood Christ shed for us. Injustice still holds sway on earth; mercy reigns above. The mercy of God gives us hope for ourselves, in spite of all our own injustices.
But what also gives us hope is the truth that moved the praying hearts of Zechariah and the widow in the parable. The reign of injustice on earth will end. God waits for the repentance of all He has chosen. Then justice will be done. All wrongs will be righted. The meaningless chaos of a world that kills the gentle messengers of God—it will be transformed by the divine Judge into a kingdom of true and eternal peace.
Let’s start with an antithesis. On the one hand, God dwells everywhere. Nothing could exist at all if it were not upheld immediately by God’s power. On the other hand: We cannot see; we cannot grasp; we cannot know God.
See? Antithesis. Both true. God everywhere. But everything we see, know, conceive: not God. Human beings search constantly for God, Who is everywhere.
Then: God began to work with us to help us deal with this problem. He drew close to the ancient Israelites. He gave them His holy name to invoke. He led them out of slavery to their homeland. He established a dwelling place with them. The Ark of the Covenant.
Not being fundamentalists, we freely acknowledge that the text–not to mention the versification–of the Mark 9:40’s has inconsistencies among the various manuscripts and translations.
Does Mark 9:49 read: “Everyone will be salted with fire?” Or does Mark 9:48 read, “For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every victim shall be salted with salt?”
But I think we can say without doubt that the moral of the story is: No one can understand the Bible without grasping one salient and salty fact.
Until the coming of Christ, God took pleasure in the sweet smelling aroma of fresh flesh meat burning on the altar which stood at the very place where Abraham had been willing to sacrifice Isaac, until the angel staid his hand.
The People of God pleased Him by offering pure, non-putrefied offerings in their holy Temple.
What is the Bible? It is books written by God, using the human authorship of men who smelled the sweet smoke rising from Mt. Zion and rejoiced.
Now, of course, we also know that some of the Bible was written during periods when the Temple lay in ruins. And God also spoke through his prophets to condemn the offering of sacrifices by people with impure, selfish hearts.
Leviticus 2:13 commands us to season our sacrifices with salt. In all your oblations, offer salt. Do not remove the salt of the Covenant from thy sacrifices.
Earlier in the chapter, the Law commands that the priest must burn the sacrifice as a sweet-smelling oblation to the Lord.
What does it mean?
Easy. Sweet-smelling smoke must ascend to the one true God. No ifs ands or buts.
But, as we read, He takes no pleasures in rams or bullocks. And the priests of the Old Covenant entered the sanctuary over and over again, with what became a rather absurd gravitas, without ever really accomplishing anything.
Christ our Priest pleases the Father. Christ the Victim; Christ the altar; Christ the Temple. Christ: Head and members. Christ the celebrant of the Holy Mass, which demands our whole and entire selves be laid on the altar with the bread and wine.
May His Gospel be the salt that makes the sacrifice of our entire lives into sweet-smelling smoke for God.
And, lest the salt grow insipid and useless: may we have frequent recourse to Confession!
The Lord’s rebuttal makes two points. The second point follows what might at first seem like an odd, if not self-contradictory, line of reasoning. The conclusion exonerates the disciples completely. They are innocent men.
The Lord first establishes their innocence on the basis of their being hungry. According to the precedent of King David himself, hunger trumped legal considerations.
Christ could have left it at that. St. Mark, in fact, only recorded this first point which the Lord made. But Matthew gives us the second point, the one that seems so mystifying.
The Law of Moses not only allows, but in fact requires priests in the Temple to double their labor on the day of rest, since an extra sacrifice is ordered for the Sabbath.
Then Jesus cites the words of the prophet Hosea. The Lord declares that He does not desire the sacrifice of burnt offerings.
But we can resolve this apparent contradiction by the other assertion that Christ made: “There is something greater than the Temple here.”
In the Temple, priests offered sacrifices to please God. Jews who loved God made pilgrimages to the Temple and offered animals to the priests to sacrifice. To say you are greater than the Temple is to say that you yourself constitute a pleasing offering to God.
A presumptuous thing to say? Certainly would be presumptuous for any humble sinner to say this. Would that I could claim to be a Temple where a pleasing sacrifice is offered to God! But, alas, I am selfish and disobedient, so my soul does not emit a pleasing aroma to heaven.
But the innocent Lamb, Who was never anything other than a Temple of perfect love and obedience, Who offered at every moment of His pilgrim life the sacrifice of undivided devotion: He could claim to be greater than the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Lord did not, in fact, contradict Himself in this second point. God desires mercy. Whose mercy? Well, first and foremost, His own. Mercy begins with God. He was the first to be aggrieved, so He must be the first to forgive. In fact, even before the first act of injustice, the Creator had already shown His infinite mercy by making us out of nothing for no benefit of His, but only for our benefit.
This infinite mercy of God is the perfect sacrifice of His Son. The Son offered Himself on the cross, in an odor of infinite sweetness, not for His sake, but for ours.
We sinners have no worthy sacrifice of our own to offer. We do much better to worry about begging pardon of those we have aggrieved and forgiving and forgetting the offenses we have suffered.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no more Temple, no more priests, no more holy bread, and no more Lord’s Day. No. The Temple is in heaven–and here on earth, wherever people believe in Jesus. The priests offer Christ’s Body and Blood, which is the bread by which we live forever. And the Lord’s Day is the eternal Sabbath that will never end.
Today in church we read a beautiful episode from the second book of Kings. King Josiah had the Law of Moses read aloud to all the people of Jerusalem, none of whom had heard it before. They kept the Passover properly that year, for the first time in centuries.
This episode inspires us all the more when we consider that King Josiah succeeded King Manasseh, who had fallen so deeply into paganism that he sacrificed his own son on the altar of Moloch and turned the Jerusalem Temple into a pagan shrine. And when we consider that, by this time, all the northern tribes had forgotten about God and the truth. Instead, they worshipped Ba’al and lived for pleasure. Because of this, they had fallen into the hands of the Assyrians and had been taken into exile, never to return.
So the picture of the people of Jerusalem gathered together with the king and priests; the Temple rededicated to the obedient worship of the true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Passover kept, as Moses commanded—this picture inspires us with a vision of faithfulness and harmony. God’s kingdom at work on earth. May we worship God together, too, with humble love, at peace and living in the truth.
But before we get too maudlin about this beautiful episode from the Old Testament, let’s remember that as this scene unfolded, the prophetess Huldah meanwhile declared that the punishments which the book of Moses promised would indeed be carried out. The people had been unfaithful for many generations, and God’s justice would not be flouted. King Josiah and his contemporaries kept the Passover faithfully in peace. But their children were carried off in chains to Babylon, and Jerusalem was reduced to ruins.
In the world, but not of it. The message of Christ, the grace of Christ, the kingdom of Christ—only from the perspective of Jesus Christ can we understand our role on earth. We want to worship in spirit and truth. But we cannot stand before God in peace if we do not face honestly the problems of our times. All is not as it should be.
Which means we have a job to do: to seek the truth, to stand up for what’s right, to confess our sins, to offer our resources for the good of others. And to hope for heaven.
Why do we keep the season of Lent? The Spirit drove the Lord Jesus out into the desert. He fasted and prayed for forty days.
The prophet Elijah walked through the desert for forty days to reach God’s mountain. Jonah gave the Ninevites a forty-day warning of God’s wrath. Moses dwelt in the cloud on Mount Sinai and conversed with the Lord for forty days. When the Lord flooded the earth, it rained for forty days.
Six weeks. Can we learn the ways of God in six weeks? Let’s get started.
In six days, God made the heavens and the earth. On the seventh, He rested. (Maybe if we study His ways hard for six weeks, then on the seventh, we will find rest.)
In the beginning, God made the land and the seas and all they contain. Then what happened? Sin. Disobedience. Estrangement from the Creator. It got ugly. Brother killed brother.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil. The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved (Genesis 6:5).
The innocent blood that had been shed cried out from the ground. The good world that God had made needed to be cleansed.
Why did the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the Temple? Because the Law of the Old Covenant commanded that every firstborn son be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed by a sacrifice.
Why did the Law require this? Because the freedom of the nation of Israel rested on the death of the firstborn throughout the land of Egypt, in the days of Moses. The consecration of the firstborn, as the book of Exodus puts it,
will be like a sign on your hand and a band on your forehead that with a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt (13:16).
Day and night, St. Simeon kept this sign on his hand and this band on his forehead. He kept a perpetual vigil of faith.
The Lord our God, the mighty and strong, slow to anger, swift to bless—He liberated us, brought us out of nothingness itself. He gave us our land, flowing with milk and honey. He gave us this holy Temple on Abraham’s mountain.
He did it all for a reason, His reason. And now we await the fulfillment of His plan, the consummation of our nation’s task. It will come in God’s time; it will come at the right moment.
I may grow old and blind and weary. But I will wait on the Almighty hand. I will wait here at the very spot where Abraham trusted God. Abraham trusted to the point of his own firstborn’s death…
So whispered Simeon to himself. And then the Blessed Mother walked through the door, with the God of Abraham in her arms.