Let’s flashback to the Gospel for this past Sunday: John the Baptist was interrogated by some of the religious leaders of the Israelites from Jerusalem’s mighty temple who wanted to know under whose authority was John doing what he was doing. John’s answers were cryptic enough to infuriate his interlocutors, and it became clear that he didn’t believe that he owed them either obeisance or an explanation. John was on a mission from the God of Israel and it was to God that he answered.
Now let’s remember whom John the Baptist was and what his mission was all about: John the Baptist was an Israelite priest who abandoned his priestly mission at the great temple of Jerusalem, and went out into the wilderness. There, on the banks of the river Jordan, he called the Israelites to repent. Why? Because he believed that God was coming and what God would do when he arrived was absolutely extraordinary. God would reveal a new temple and a new way of worship. This new temple and new worship would bring an end to the temple and worship that John the Israelite priest had been ordained to serve- the temple of Jerusalem.
Knowing this, we know why those religious leaders from the Jerusalem temple were so upset.
The temple of Jerusalem was the very heart of the Israelite way of life. Think of the temple’s significance as a place that combined the Vatican, Washington DC, and the museums and libraries of London and New York and that’s how significant the temple was to the Israelites. And add to that the belief that the temple was NOT just a place of worship or civic center, but the literal house of God on earth.
John the Baptist was announcing that this place, this temple, was coming to an end and that God was the one who was bringing it to its conclusion.
Last Sunday’s readings were all about the temple and worship, and so are this Sunday’s readings.
Our first, from the Second Book of Samuel, details the origins of the great temple of Jerusalem. King David desired to build the Lord a temple, but God told King David, through the prophet Nathan, that this would not be his mission. His son would build the temple. The temple would be built not by David, but by the Son of David.
What does that mean for us? Wait, be patient, and when we get to the Gospel, it may become clearer to you.
Our second scripture is an excerpt from St. Paul’s magnificent letter to the Romans. Paul does not speak directly of the temple but instead cites a mystery- a “mystery” that God kept hidden for ages, a mystery into which the prophets had insights, but they did not live to see. This mystery is Christ himself. And who is Christ?
This question is answered in the dramatic scene presented to you from the Gospel of Luke. Today’s Gospel tells us that Christ’s mother was visited by a heavenly creature, an angel, who announced to her that she would conceive a son, not in the natural way, but by divine intervention, and the child born of her would be reveal the “mystery” of which St. Paul speaks- the mystery of God in our flesh.
The child born of the Blessed Virgin Mary is God, who has, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. God, who in Christ, is born into the family descended from King David, is the “Son of David”, foreseen by the prophet Nathan, who will build the a new temple, and his temple will not be built of bricks and mortar, stone and wood, but of muscle, blood, bone and flesh.
The new temple is the Body of Christ the Lord. This is the “mystery” St. Paul writes about revealed!
It is for this reason that when John the Baptist sees Christ the Lord he knows that the Lord has done his work and revealed the new temple he has built. The new temple is the Body of Christ and the new worship is the sacrifice that Christ will give to his people. Thus does John testify that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That’s all temple language- the language of the sanctuary, of the sacrifice, of worship.
I know this all sounds very mystical, and it is. If you want a religion without mysticism, join a political party, read a celebrity magazine or go to the gym- there you will find religion without mysticism. But if you seek the living and true God, then you must accept the mysticism of the Church’s faith, where God reveals himself, as St. Paul insists, in mysteries “kept secret for long ages”, mysteries that are finally explained in Christ.
Christ is the new temple and his sacrifice is the new worship- he is the temple God creates for himself and the worship Christ gives to us is the kind of worship that he wants.
And this is where it all becomes very interesting for us, and the “mystery” of which St. Paul speaks gets right into our faces.
Christ opens up for us the temple of his Body in the Mass, for that is what the Mass is- it is a route of access into the temple of Jesus Christ, where he gives us his Body and invites us to become for him living sanctuaries for his divine presence. That’s what Holy Communion is all about. You are invited to receive the divine presence of Christ the Lord, take that divine presence into your very body, and become for other people a route of access to Christ himself! Receiving him you can become like him. Become like him and your life will change and you will change the world.
The same divine presence that en-fleshed himself in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary is given to you in the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Thus, the Mass is the worship that God wants, because it is the worship that he has given to us through Christ the Lord. The Mass is our way to get into the temple where the divine presence of God in Christ is waiting for us, and can be given to us, so that we might become a way that others can know and receive the divine presence of God in Christ.
This is why the Mass is so important to us. Not because we are entertained by it. Not because it always gives us positive feelings. Not because we like the priest or even because we like the people who sit in the pew with us. If we get all that with the Mass, that’s great, but those reasons are not why the Mass is important.
The Mass is important because it is the way that God in Christ lets us into his temple so that we can enter into his presence, and there in that temple, receive a relationship with him. We experience in that temple the kind of worship that God wants and the kind of worship God gives.
The Church’s worship is not meant to be a concert or a lecture. The Church’s worship is meant to be temple worship.
Coming to terms with all this is of pressing urgency because in just a few days the Church here and throughout the world will celebrate the great and holy solemnity of the Christ-Mass (what the culture has come to call Christmas).
The Christ-Mass is about the first moment God’s temple, that is, the Body of Christ the Lord, was revealed and people saw his temple for the first time. This happened the day the Lord Jesus was born, when God revealed that he had accepted a human nature, and with his acceptance of a human nature, had built himself a dwelling place, a temple out of flesh and blood. What God in Christ revealed on the day of his birth in the flesh, God in Christ reveals in the Christ-Mass, indeed in every Mass.
Christ made of his Body a route of access to his divine life, a bridge through which you pass from earth to heaven. That route of access, that bridge, his Body is still with us- it is here, even right now, in this great mystery of God in Christ revealed to us in this temple, in this very Mass.