Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Destruction of the Temple -- Hayez (1867)
It is almost impossible for us to imagine the skyscrapers of New York or Capitol Hill in Washington DC lying in ruins in just a few years time, never to be rebuilt. If anyone predicted it, we could not take him seriously. The prediction that Jesus makes in the Gospel for this Sunday must have struck his hearers in just this way -- quite unbelievable to everyone except his fanatical disciples. Such 'large buildings' couldn't just disappear. Yet he was right. Within forty years, the massive Temple at Jerusalem, a symbol for the Jews of the enduring stability of their faith, was destroyed by Rome, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. But, Jesus adds, the destruction of the Temple and the wars that will follow it are just the start. There is much worse to follow.

These apocalyptic passages from the Gospels are often thought to be embarrassing. They seem to put Jesus in the same class as those eccentric people who walk the streets with a billboard declaring ‘The End of the World is Nigh”. Still, it has to be remembered that the Roman Empire did indeed collapse. The Jewish Temple was ruined in 70 AD and never rebuilt. The imperial Capitol eventually went the same way, and by the 4th century the culture of Greece and Rome that had shaped the world for centuries came to an end.  In time, of course, other 'powers and dominions' arose to take its place -- up to and including our international ‘global village’ and the internet by which it is connected. It is both unimaginable and certain that our world too will come to an end.

Hannah Praying in the Temple - Marc Chagall
The ‘triumph’ of Jesus over sin and death stands in sharp contrast to the dominance of the Temple and the might of Rome. Jesus was a Prince of a quite different kind. Since he was executed as a criminal, his mission must have been declared a spectacular failure had he aimed at establishing more powerful and enduring political and military institutions.  Yet “by this single offering” the passage from Hebrews tells us, “he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”. It all seems highly implausible. Nevertheless, and contrary to every expectation, “the bows of the mighty are broken, while the feeble gird on strength”, as Hannah reminds us in the Book of Samuel. When the mighty Roman Empire began to crumble, a truly different kind of institution took root  in an obscure corner of the Empire. A few humble people formed the kernal of the Church. That mystical Body is now one in which billions of people, both living and dead, are united as in Christ Jesus. Build as we might, it is here, and only here, the Gospel tells us, that we can expect to find ‘an abiding city’.

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