Many of us have been on pilgrimages either overseas or locally. Some of these pilgrim centres have personal significance to us for various reasons. As a child, I can still recall the yearly pilgrimages to St Anne’s Church . It was not just a pilgrimage but for a child it was more like a family outing and one of the things that I remember so clearly is the hive of activities that happen around and leading up to the Church. The many traders with “products” like food, snacks, drinks, flowers, candles, and religious articles to sell. As a child these things are quite fascinating seeing the sellers and buyers actively engaging in conversation. Nowadays, when I see all this selling and buying, the gospel passage on this Third Sunday of Lent comes to mind – the cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-25).
The accounts of the cleaning of the Temple is placed at the beginning of the Gospel of John right after the marriage at Cana and it revolves around the theme of the temple. Interestingly, in the Synoptic gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—the cleansing of the temple comes near the end of Jesus’ ministry, upon His entrance into Jerusalem, which culminates in His crucifixion. Some may wonder why did Jesus, just after the great miracle at Cana, act in this particular way of driving out the traders, overturning tables and reprimanding them harshly – His actions are hard to understand given that mercy and kindness characterised Jesus’ public ministry.
It would seem that Jesus fury was aroused by the erosion of the temple decorum and the religious fervour that the temple represented. Some commentators will say that Jesus’ drastic actions and words, unseen anywhere else in the Gospels, represent a two-fold prophetic forthtelling: firstly, that the time of fulfilment has come; secondly, by identifying God as His Father and calling the temple as His “Father’s house”, Jesus declares that He is the Son of God – the promised Messiah.
In declaring “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up”, we already hear very early on Jesus prophesying His passion, death, and resurrection. However, it would require the experience of encountering the risen Lord for the disciples to understand what Jesus really meant about raising it in three days. In other words, through the cleansing of the temple, Jesus proclaims Himself to be the “new temple” through whom God is accessible to all – the living ‘Temple of God’ among us.
Just as Jesus was the new temple, who would be ‘destroyed’ and ‘rebuilt’ in three days, St Paul reminds the early Christians, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Being “God’s Temple” simply means that by our baptism, we have all been called to “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received” (Ephesians 4:1). It is no longer a “cultic faith” as witnessed in the Temple during the time of Jesus or merely “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26), but rather reliving the life of Christ in our own person in the here and now.
In this season of Lent, as we read this Gospel, let us be mindful that Christ has come not only to “cleanse the Temple of Jerusalem,” but the temple of our own body, our own life. What does this mean? It means that Christ wants to “cleanse us” from all that distracts us from Him. Our Lenten observances must help us to cleanse our own lives of preoccupations such as wealth, power, and fame – the very things Jesus was tempted while in the desert. As much as we strive, there are times when we too can be caught up in a worldly “marketplace” that blurs our decisions, priorities, values and even relationships. The Gospel this Sunday reminds us that being authentic ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, calls us to a life of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:16-23) – the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The ‘cleansing of our temple’ is a work in progress… may this season of Lent help us to open the door of our heart, letting our Lord cleanse us of those things which keep us distant from Him.
Third Sunday of Lent (7 March 2021)
Image: Alexander Smirnov’s dramatic interpretation of The Cleansing of the Temple