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The cleansing of the temple

March 6, 2015
Father Joseph Previtali

St. Augustine tells us that there are in the world two fundamental and opposing ways of living our lives and ordering our loves, two “cities”: “Two loves formed two cities: the love of self, reaching even to contempt of God, an earthly city; and the love of God, reaching to contempt of self, a heavenly one.” In our Gospel for this Third Sunday of Lent, Jesus reveals to us the war between the two cities: “Make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.”

The temple was meant to be a holy place consecrated to the worship of God, to the ordering of men’s loves to God even unto contempt of themselves, to the building up of the heavenly city. Instead, Jesus finds in the temple the operation of the earthly city: Man was being served, not God. The Fathers of the Church teach us in their commentaries that the disorder of the temple was principally an interior disorder: that the temple needed to be cleansed above all of the self-serving evil spirit that had made the house of God into a house of merchandise and made the worship of the Jews carnal and lifeless.

Jesus tells us in his response to the Jews that the sacred temple is a figure of his sacred body: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John clarifies for us: “He spoke of the temple of his body.” By cleansing the temple, Jesus is revealing that his own body is the new temple, the new “place” of worship, of ordering men’s loves to God, of building the heavenly city. With the new temple, we are able truly to worship God in spirit and in truth, unto eternal life.

The purification of worship begins in our own individual hearts. My soul is the temple and Jesus wants to come in with a whip of cords and drive out all the beasts of vice and all the greed of the money-changers. He wants to purify and cleanse my soul so that it can be truly a temple consecrated to the love of God even to the contempt of self. He wants to make me a true member of the heavenly city. The Fathers of the Church take this as a favorite theme of the spiritual sense of this passage.

They also refer the cleansing of the temple to the cleansing of Our Lord’s body, the church. Our Lord purifies his church from all self-seeking shepherds, from all those who work in the church for their own good, for their own glory, and not for the glory of Christ. He cleanses his church by giving it shepherds after his own heart, shepherds who will love God even to contempt of self, who will proclaim the truth of the Gospel even when it is not popular, who will lay down their lives for the flock, even when the flock would rather be lost.

The full weight of the cleansing of the temple comes to bear on the life of the church and the individual Christian in the holiest of holies, the sacred liturgy. Here we have the purification of the individual soul and the reform of the church united. As we have seen, Our Lord cleanses the temple above all to establish right worship. He longs to rid his church of self-seeking and self-worship in individual souls and in the church, but above all in the sacred liturgy. He desires with a holy zeal for his Father’s house – zeal which consumes him! – to purify the church’s worship, to make it God-centered and rightly-ordered. He wishes above all to make efficacious in his church and in our hearts the sacrament of divine love, to make the holy sacrifice of the Mass the apex of the glory of the heavenly city.

Father Previtali is parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Pillar Parish, Half Moon Bay.

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