Monday, 16 March 2009

3rd Sunday of Lent Year B

Today’s Gospel is “noisy”. The commotion centres on Christ cleansing the Temple. But, beyond the distraction of the noise, there is an air of majestic calmness in the action of Christ. It is just before the Passover in Jerusalem. Note that we encounter a Christ at the beginning of His ministry and not towards the end just before His Passion as is in the other Gospels. Here at the beginning of His ministry, as He meets the Temple, He encounters a corrupt religious system—a system which desecrates and diminishes the Temple through the business of religion—buying and selling of cattle, sheep and pigeons, an exchange bureau operating within sacred grounds.

But, the reaction of Christ is more than just a reaction to business conducted in the premise of the Temple. He is reacting to the narrowing of Israel’s mission as embodied in the Temple. This mission is rooted in the First Reading. The Decalogue is Israel’s map for life—a way of living for a people in a special relationship with God. But, this special relationship is not an end in itself. Instead, this special relationship was to flower in Israel fulfilling her God-given destiny to be the Light of the Nations. Unfortunately, instead of living this mission, the Jews made religion narrow, nationalistic and they turned God into their exclusive possession. God’s plan for the Temple to be a house of prayer for all the nations has been thwarted by Israel’s narrow vision as evidenced by the stringent laws preventing Gentiles from entering the Temple. The furthest a Gentile could venture was into the Court of the Gentile.

Thus, the cleansing of the Temple is not just a struggle between “spiritual” worship and “sacrificial” worship even though the evidence, that is, of Christ driving out the traders, seems to point to it. In upsetting the Temple arrangement, the majesty of Christ’s action is in re-claiming the Temple for its original function: to be a house of prayer for all the nations, and recalling Israel to her original mission: to be the Light of the Nations. In upsetting the status quo, Christ shows that salvation is not just for the Jews, but as originally intended by God, to be for everyone.

That’s where our trouble is because God’s vision is often narrowed by our human horizon. We see this narrowing horizon from Israel down to the Corinthians in the 2nd Reading. The Corinthians were attracted by every new fad and fashion that washed upon their shores. Like the Jews, they looked for signs of God presence. Signs usually associated with wonders, miracles if you like. And they also wanted the wisdom that came from Greek philosophy. It is against this narrow vision that Paul writes eloquently that his vision is Christ Crucified—truly a stumbling block because the Jews cannot accept a Crucified Messiah and Greek philosophy cannot comprehend a Suffering God.

The vision of Christianity is paradoxical and the paradox is that God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. This 3rd Sunday of Lent brings us into the heart of God’s vision and the readings preceding today are leading us there. “The stone rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone”. “The Cross, a sign of shame, in Christ will become a sign of victory”. “Christ, emptied of life will become the source of life for us”.

The vision of our God is His Son crucified and we are invited to have faith in Him. The tragedy of humanity is that we struggle to accept the wisdom and the strength of the Crucified Christ. Christ in throwing wide open the Temple is majestic but we who enter the Temple are met not by grandeur but by His pierced Heart.

This is why Paul’s teaching is central to what we are doing today. We are about halfway through Lent. Here we encounter the paradox of an infinitely wise God who in our estimation seems foolish enough to let His Son die on the Cross; an infinitely powerful God who appears helpless in the face of suffering and often senseless suffering imposed upon humanity. But, the paradox is where there seems to be only failure, sorrow and defeat it is there that we find the true power of God.

St Paul in his own life testifies to this. He tells us of the “thorn in his side”. In his struggle to overcome this “thorn” (sin) and his anxiety at repeated failure, Christ tells him, “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). This is relevant to us because we are powerful and our strength is delivered in an instant. In fact, it is in our finger tip. We do not have to physically grind our coffee beans. We get our caffeine fix at the push of a button. Because power is at our finger tip, we have come to believe that we can rely on our sheer strength. But the strength to be a faithful husband and a good father, to take care of an aged parent or a retarded child, to survive an unexpected death in the family, to bear the burden of a debilitating disease dogging us for months, to understand and forgive someone who has hurt us, that strength comes when we embrace the Crucified Christ. Christ Crucified makes more sense than we think.

In cleansing the Temple, Christ opens the door of salvation to all people and invites us to embrace His vision. It might be perceived as madness and weakness but in the end, it is the power of God, for the Cross is not weakness but strength. In the Cross, we embrace the strength of God in Christ Crucified.