In today’s Gospel we hear of the cleansing of the Temple. Jesus deeply loved the Jerusalem temple. He had been brought there by Mary and Joseph as a newborn baby and he probably went to the temple time and again throughout his life for the many pilgrim feasts. We know that as a twelve year old he had remained there, and when his parents finally found him in the temple, he asked them in astonishment, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus, the temple was his Father’s house, and that’s why he felt so at home there. That was also why he couldn’t bear to see it turned into a house of materialism and commercialism. And in a holy wrath he cleansed the temple.
For the pious Jew of that time the Temple meant everything. It was not only the religious center but also the political center, the social center, the cultural center, and the economic center. The Temple was the place where God dwelled and from where the nation was governed. In its full glory it was the center of Jewish Society. And so here comes this prophet from Nazareth, in their eyes he’s a nobody, from a nowhere place. And he begins to make a ruckus, he cries out, he shouts, he makes a whip of cord, he scatters the animals, and he turns things over. If this were to happen today in St. Peter’s the man would be hustled off to the police very quickly. Historians say that this was the act that sealed our Lord’s fate on Good Friday.
And so after the ruckus and wanting a reason for it all the Jews ask Jesus, “What sign can you give us?” And Jesus answers as we know, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They totally misunderstand, because only enemies would destroy their temple. Throughout the centuries anytime an enemy invaded Jerusalem the Temple was destroyed. Only an enemy would tear it down. So what is Jesus telling them and us? This Gospel today shows us who he is. First, Jesus demonstrates the authority of God. He’s making a divine judgment of corruption. This cleansing of the Temple identifies Jesus as God. Second, Jesus is instituting a New Temple, after
three days he raises the Temple of his own body. He’s telling them and us, “I am God’s dwelling place among you.” Something totally new is happening. Jesus is the mystical body onto which we are grafted, and once grafted by baptism we become Temples of the Holy Spirit.
March 7th is the Feast day of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. In the early church they were often cited as examples of what it meant to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. They lived in North Africa and they were martyred in the year 203 and for 100s of years they were the rock stars of sanctity. Their story of heroism was wildly popular. St. Augustine also from North Africa would get mad because his people wanted to hear more about them than his sermons. There is so much in their story, read it if you get a chance. Now Perpetua and Felicity were still catechumen, they were still studying the faith, when they were arrested, they hadn’t even been baptized yet when they were taken to prison. Felicity was a slave while Perpetua was an aristocrat. Both were new moms, Perpetua had recently given birth, while Felicity gave birth in prison. Now while in prison they were secretly baptized by their teacher who voluntarily turned himself in so as to finish their education. Everyday Perpetua’s father, a leading man of the city came by trying to convince her to give up this foolishness of Christianity, offer a little incense to the gods and you can leave, he would say. But Perpetua always refused and one day she said to her father holding up a pot, “Do you see this water pot? … Can it be called by any other name than what it is? No he replied. So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”
At their trial both Perpetua and Felicity were found guilty of being Christians and they were condemned to be taken to the amphitheater for the public games and to be killed by wild animals. They were mortally wounded by a wild ox and then they were beheaded. If you look for their images in historic pieces of art many times they are shown with a wild cow in the background. Something, as a former vet I would notice.
In today’s Gospel we read of oxen, sheep, and doves and for early Christians these animals came to represent certain human sins and weaknesses. Oxen which are used for digging up the earth, getting it ready for planting, signify earthly desires; sheep which are sometimes considered stupid animals, signify man’s obstinacy; and the dove they sometimes saw as signifying man’s instability, his flightiness. The wild ox of earthly desires could not destroy Perpetua and Felicity. God was their number one, no amount of enticement by their families could change their minds. They were baptized and their souls were made temples of the Holy Spirit, so while the bull could kill their bodies it couldn’t kill their soul. Their souls had been grafted to the New Temple of the Mystical Body of Jesus. So in our Gospel today in the cleansing of the Temple we see Jesus wiping away earthly desires, obstinacy, and instability.
So what can we say of ourselves during this season of lent. Are we letting our Lord actively dwell within the temple of our soul? Are we letting our Lord cleanse it more and more of earthly forces and tendencies, and attitudes, and influences? What table are we letting him overturn, what thieves is he kicking out, what animals are being scattered? The soul of a Christian is beautiful, one of the most beautiful things there is, and it’s meant to be a place where God actively dwells.
To paraphrase St. Perpetua let us not call ourselves by any other name than that of Christian.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley