I spent some of Saturday afternoon setting-up a second-hand iPhone I’ve just been given by some friends, guided by “the book of words” – partly on-line and partly on paper – which now lives very securely in my desk and on my hard-drive, because while this phone is a relatively straightforward little gadget, you have to know how it works. “Follow the rules” and it works excellently, and will do all sorts of things that are helpful (and all sorts of things that are just fun, as well); lose your grip on the rules and it can just sit there not doing anything at all. So I keep tight hold of “the book of words,” the owner’s manual, because it tells me how this gadget works and how it doesn’t work.
You may already be making the same connection I found myself making with regard to today’s readings. What we have in the Ten Commandments is “the book of words” for the human being: not an arbitrary set of rules imposed from outside that restrict us, or take away all that seems to delight, but an owner’s manual for being a person. Couched in the language and images of a different time and place, the Ten Commandments point to the truth of who I am.
Note that: the ten Commandments tell me the truth of who I am. They don’t simply tell me what I must do – or mustn’t do – but in telling me that, (in their language, from their time and place), they tell me who I am, and what is the world in which I live. They tell me the truth; that I, and the world in which I live, are where the holiness of God is made visible, where the Holy is to be found.
For millennia, people have looked for the Holy in special places. For the Jews, the Temple was the place of the Holy: “Praise God in his holy place!” sings the psalmist. So the words of Jesus in today’s gospel were not just shocking but unbelievable: destroy this temple? Not only has it been being rebuilt for the past 46 years, but it is the Temple – it is where the Holy is to be found. Even in the time of the Temple, God’s first people knew that all of life was holy, but the Temple was the Temple: this was where the Shekinah, the glory of the presence of God, was to be found. To speak of it being destroyed wasn’t so much the equivalent of suggesting taking a bulldozer to St Peter’s as of suggesting we should do away with the Mass.
But we need to remind ourselves, as the Jews needed to remind themselves, that it was not until the time of King David that the first temple was built: for most of the defining moments of the history of God’s people, there was no one special place as such where God was to be found, and the Commandments spelt out that all of life was a place for the Holy to be found and celebrated. There was not one dimension which was the Holy and one which was the everyday: God’s revelation was of God as Emmanuel – God in the midst of us.
Judaism is full of blessings – thanksgivings for each moment of the day - just as it is full of commandments for each moment of the day, because each moment of the day is holy, because in each and every moment of the day (including some moments that we really might not think of as linked with holiness) the Holiness of God is there to be met. And if some of these blessings don’t sound too “politically correct”, such as the thanksgiving prayer for men which begins by thanking God for not making me a woman, then they, too, are lodged in their time and place, (when the obligations of Judaism rested mostly on men).
After the final destruction of the Temple, and the beginnings of the Diaspora - the scattering of God’s first people across the known world -Judaism came to focus more and more on the holiness of the everyday. The home rather than the temple became the place of the celebration of God’s presence: just listen to some of the Sabbath prayers:
“Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who made this bread come forth from the earth.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who created the fruits of the vine.
Blessed are you, O Lord, who made us holy with your ordinances
and in your love gave us the Sabbath day.”
John’s Gospel is put together after the destruction of the temple in the year 70 of our common era, and was addressed to a community that had broken its links with Judaism. John in his Gospel was telling us not something that disagreed with or refuted what the rabbis were teaching about the Holy being present in the everyday, but something that went beyond it: “but Jesus was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body.”
For John, as for all the Gospel writers, the Gospel itself was that Jesus is the Holy One: Jesus is God’s holiness in our midst, Jesus is God’s presence in our midst. As Nicholas Boyle puts it in an article in the Tablet some years ago:
The one central fact for Christianity is that God – the ultimate reality – is (more precisely, once was, and still is) human.
For St Paul writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Christ – and Christ crucified - was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” – and today we can say much the same. But to those who are called, Christ – and Christ crucified - is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The Commandments point us to the truth of who we are.
The Commandments show us that all of life can be a meeting with the Holy.
The Commandments show us how we can so live as to be with God, who is the Holy One.
Jesus – as he tells us explicitly - takes nothing away from that.
Jesus - the Holy One of God - does more.
Jesus becomes who we are.
Jesus lives the truth of who we are.
Jesus, living this truth in us in the presence of the Holy Spirit,
both shows us and empowers us to live the truth of who we are,
(whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves in others’ opinions):
holy sisters and holy brothers of Jesus,
the Holy One of God,
called to live in him and with him
as holy and beloved children of the Father.
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