The Temple of His Body

3rd Sunday of Lent (Year B)

NOTE: For the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent, the scrutinities are celebrated for catechumens preparing for baptism this Easter. The readings for Year A are always used at Masses when the scutinities are celebrated, and may be used as an option on these Sundays apart from the scrutinies. The reflection below is on the readings for Year B.

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

John 2:19

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the Temple in Jewish society and what it represented in terms of God’s presence with His people. 

When Israel was led out of Egypt, the presence of the Lord preceded them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Eventually God directed Moses to construct the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets of the Law, upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments (that we read in the first reading this Sunday), the manna that God miraculously fed the people with during their desert journey, and Aaron’s rod, representing his authority as high priest. God’s presence then dwelt over the Ark, which the people of Israel housed in a tent, called a “tabernacle” in Hebrew. 

Even after they entered the Promised Land and were established as a kingdom, the Ark continued to be kept in a tent until King David was inspired to construct a permanent dwelling for the Ark in Jerusalem. This temple was completed by David’s son and successor, King Solomon. From that point forward, God’s presence dwelt with His people in the Temple, which became the principle place of sacrifice and the focal point of Jewish worship. 

That temple was destroyed, and the Ark lost, in the 9th century BC during the Babylonian invasion. It began to be rebuilt a generation later under the direction of King Cyrus. The Temple that Jesus and the Apostles knew is thus known as the Second Temple, which had been recently renovated and expanded by King Herod. 

The Temple was the most sacred place in the world to the Jewish people. The word “sacred” literally means “set apart,” and this is reflected in how restricted access to the Temple was. The Temple contained a series of courtyards and chambers. The outermost courtyard was called the Court of the Gentiles. Anyone, even non-Jews, could enter and worship God here. Next was the Court of the Women, which was only open to Israelites, whether male or female. Further in still was the Court of Israel which only Jewish men were allowed to enter to pray.

Beyond this was the Court of the Priests, which was only open to Jewish men descended from Aaron who served as the hereditary priests of Israel. Through this court was the sanctuary where sacrifices were made, and beyond this sanctuary was the inner sanctuary, called the Holy of Holies, where the Presence of God resided. This inmost room, still known as the “tabernacle,” could only be entered by the High Priest of Israel once per year. 

I recount all of this because it is important to know how sacred and therefore how restricted the Temple was to the Jewish people.

This sacredness, however, did not prevent abuses from happening, such as the scandalous way merchants selling sacrificial animals took advantage of the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual festivals. It is in this context in this Sunday’s gospel that Jesus says he will destroy the Temple and in three days raise it up again (Jn 2:19). 

What must this have sounded like to his listeners? The Temple as they knew it had taken many decades to construct, at great expense of wealth and labor. How could one man destroy such an edifice by himself, let alone rebuild it in just three days? But Jesus wasn’t speaking about a building made of stone. As the gospel tells us, he was speaking of the temple of his Body (Jn 2:21).

What made the Temple sacred was not the stone walls. It was the fact that the presence of God resided there. During the Exodus in the desert when the Ark was kept in a tent, the presence of God made even that tent a sacred space. 

In Christ, God is present with us in a whole new way — a personal way. Jesus is the Law. He is the bread come down from heaven. He is our great and eternal High Priest. He is Emmanuel (God-with-us). Jesus says, “When you lift up the Son of Man you will know that I AM” (Jn 8:28), attributing the divine name YHWH to Himself. This is why Jesus can say, “there is something greater than the Temple here” (Mt 12:6). 

After the resurrection, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, never to be rebuilt. But the real Temple of Jesus’ body was raised up in three days, just as Christ prophesied it would be.

And now here is the part where this all becomes so important for us. By baptism, you and I are incorporated into the same Body of Christ. We are the “living stones” that make up the Temple where God continues to dwell in the world (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). And when we receive the Eucharist, the Real Presence of God comes to dwell physically within us, in an even more substantial way than He did in the Holy of Holies of old. 

At the moment of His death on the cross, the veil of the Temple that covered the entryway into the tabernacle was torn in two (see Mt 27:50-51). Now in Christ, access to the presence of God is no longer restricted to a single High Priest once per year, but is freely available to all who made one with Christ. It is no longer restricted, but is not thereby any less sacred.

With all that in mind, how then are we to treat and reverence our own bodies which have become tabernacles of the Lord and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit? How then are we to treat and reverence our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who share in that Divine Presence with us? Let this be our reflection during this Lenten season, as we devote ourselves to loving one another as Christ loved us, offering Himself to the Father for our salvation.