And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And he taught daily in the temple.
We are just about half-way through Trinitytide, the longest season of the Church. The summer days have stretched out, the gardens are producing their bounties, and Fall is coming upon us. The liturgical cycle also slows down with fewer changes in prayers and colors. It seems a good time to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. And that, according to our Church Fathers, is exactly what we should not be doing at this point. Just look at the Gospel lessons that have been given to us. The lectionary is a beautiful gift to us, and for the most part, the choice of the Epistle and Gospel come from 4th century that were then cemented by the Church in Rome in the 6th and 7th centuries. The Church has been hearing the same lessons on each particular Sunday for at least the last 1500 years. Some of the choices in the lectionary are quite obvious. For example: When we enter into Advent, the readings include the prophecies of the the coming Messiah, his arrival, and the spread of the Gospel.
In Trinitytide, the lessons chosen seem, at first, to be quite random, but there is a progressive and purposeful intentionality behind them. The first three Gospels set what it means to enter into the kingdom of God, and then they move into what should the children of God look like. So the Fourth Sunday Gospel urges Christians to be as merciful as our Father is merciful. The fifth Sunday shows the apostolic example of leaving all to follow the true Fisherman of souls.
Given that introduction, the Gospel lesson today still seems a bit out of place. How does the destruction of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple have to do with my life today? But even this Gospel lesson addresses one of the most important issues of our lives: prayer.
Before I talk about the nature of prayer and its role in our lives as Christians, let us pay attention to the Gospel and how it brings up this subject.
At the start of Advent, I preached on St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and visitation to the Temple. It should be noted that both Matthew and Luke connect the triumphant entrance with the cleansing of the Temple. This connection, I argued, was notable because it connected Jesus’ first visit to the Temple to his last. His first visit was when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple when the days of purification were completed and presented him before Simeon. Simeon receives Jesus and immediately recognizes who He is and worships:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
Contrast that with Jesus visitation in our Gospel reading. The people lay down their clothes for him to ride on in the streets, they praise him as their coming Messiah. But when he arrives at the Temple, no one receives him as Simeon did. Unlike Simeon, the people are not prepared for the true person of Jesus. When Jesus enters the temple this time, he has to cast out thieves—prayer, which is communion with God, has ceased. The likes of Simeon are gone, and now the temple has been defiled.
The most striking aspect of Simeon, then, is that he does recognize the Messiah. St. Luke tells us that he was a just and devout man. The Holy Ghost was upon him and he waited for the Messiah his whole life, attentive to the Holy Spirit. The same can be said of Anna, who, according to St. Luke, prayed and fasted continuously. She was devoted to the Temple, and when she saw Simeon take JEsus, she too rejoiced and praised God for sending the Messiah. These two people were in constant prayer and recognized the Son of God.
And yet, when Jesus comes back to the Temple at the end of His ministry, He is not received as the Messiah. In fact, he claims that the temple is no longer a house of prayer–it is now a den of thieves.
Let’s take a step back and review what the Temple means…
In 1 Kings, Solomon finally builds the Temple that his father, David, had promised. Chapter 8 is an extended prayer of Solomon before God and the congregation of Israel. In this beautiful prayer, he explains how God chose to dwell in the Temple that Solomon built just as he had chosen to dwell in the Tabernacle of Moses. His presence was there, and therefore, Solomon acknowledges the Temple to be the place of prayer. He even goes on to beg the Lord to hear the prayers of the people that they either pray at the Temple or even towards the Temple. For example, Solomon says,
“What prayer and supplication so ever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands towards this house: Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways.”
The Temple was the physical place where God dwelt with His people. In other words, it was the place of union between God and His creation. The Israelites went to the Temple to worship him and pray to Him because He dwelt there. If you could not go there personally, then you prayed towards the Temple. Solomon concludes his prayer with a call to the people: “Let your heart therefore be perfect with the Lord our God, to walk in his statues, and to keep his commandments, as at this day.” Now that the Temple is completed, Solomon urges the people to dedicate their whole lives to the Lord so that they will be perfect with the Lord. He is urging them towards union with God.
In our Gospel today, Jesus mourns the destruction of Jerusalem, and along with it, the destruction of the Temple of God. Those tears were not in vain, because in 70 AD., Caesar Titus demolished the Holy City. But our goal in life, union with God, is still the same. By the grace of God, this is still possible. Jesus claims before his death that now it is His body that is the Temple, the place where God has unified himself with His creation. The temple stones were scattered across Jerusalem in 70 AD, torn apart by expert Roman engineers. To this day, it has not been resurrected. But as Jesus claimed, tear this Temple down, and he means his Body, and I will rebuild it in three days, which he did at His resurrection.
Christ’s Body is the Temple, and His Body, the Church, is the place where God’s people can meet their Creator. Paul explains to the Corinthian church: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost [which is] in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” 1Co 6:19 KJV
And yet the Apostle Paul goes even a step further, for he also calls each individual the Temple:
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which [temple] ye are.” 1Co 3:16-17 KJV
We are called then, to be a temple. The Christian’s life, then, is essentially a life of union with God, given to us at our Baptism. If you do not understand that, after all of Fr. Glenn’s sermons, then you need to listen up here. God unites Himself to us in our Baptism, and this union is deepened by the continual partaking of the Sacraments, especially of the Body and Blood of Christ. The union is actualized and lived out through prayer. By the power of the Holy Spirit which lives in us, we commune with God through prayer on a day to day, moment to moment basis. That is, if we open ourselves up to prayer. Let me explain a couple of ways to think about prayer to help us understand its nature.
John Henry Newman described prayer as a language for heavenly conversation. Newman means that just as the mannerisms and language of a culture shapes the members of that society, prayer shapes the soul of the Christian. This is a very helpful definition of prayer because it allows us to view prayer in terms of fluency. Prayer should be the simplest and easiest natural activity, but given our wounded fallen nature, it has to be learned with great labor. Just as learning languages require a lot of work, but then flow easily off the tongue, so too does prayer have to be learned until it becomes a fluent expression. But even then, even as fluent speakers, there are degrees of knowledge of a language.
One time, when I was traveling in southern Africa, I randomly met an older woman at a remote hostel in Zimbabwe. She joined us over a simple meal, and by the end of the night, she had offered her house to me when I was going to pass through J-burg. I took her up on the offer and realized when I arrived that she was clearly from “high society.” So for two days I enjoyed their hospitality. Quickly it became clear from their language and habits that we came from different cultures and societies. Not only was their actual vocabulary and pronunciation different, their whole affect, including manners, posture, and habits, clearly came from a different culture than mine. As a young and improperly dressed American, it seemed as if I was from a completely different world and spoke a different language.
So how do we learn this language? Let us turn to the classic definition of prayer by St. John of Damascus which is that prayer is the lifting up of the mind to God. This is exactly what what the priest asks the people at the Sursum Corda. Lift up your hearts, and the people respond, We lift them up to the Lord. This is much more difficult than it sounds. Our minds are usually preoccupied with so many things that it is difficult to lift our minds above all that is created to God Himself. We have forms, at first, to give us the right words to say, but a soul comes to God in prayer, “not to ‘say its prayers,’ not to ‘make a mediation,’ not to think or rest, nor to ask, but to find Him and be with Him. With Him it may speak or be silent, it may make a meditation or contemplation, it may ask or wait; the action of prayer differs with each individual soul and in the same soul at different times, but its essence is always the same–‘the lifting up of the mind to God.’
The more you can lift your mind up toward, to enter into that heavenly conversation, the more you will grow in that heavenly language. It does start with learning formal prayers, just as Jesus taught His own disciples. But it grows into ceaseless prayer, the constant lifting up of our minds to God. This sounds nearly impossible, but it is not. It is learning the heavenly language that we were created to know. Next week we will go into more detail about the different types of prayer but I will end on a warning.
Just because you have been baptized does not mean that you are fluent in prayer. You must learn it and persevere in it. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and the temple because they missed their day of visitation. Prayer had ceased, judgement was coming, and no one saw it coming. You too, as the Temple of God, have a day of visitation approaching. Prayer is our means to prepare for that day of visitation, our death so that when we meet our Messiah we will recognize Who He Is and enter into worship. Learning that worship starts right now in the prayer of the Mass. Be attentive, be vigilant–these prayers are lifting you into heaven.