When Jacob settles his debate with Laban, there is a surprising reciprocity in their deal. (His father in law, Laban cheated him by keeping him as his worker for twenty years, he had to marry both of Laban’s daughters, and was not paid the agreed sum for his work.) They are mirroring each other: ‘Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I… And they collected stones and they made a heap; and they ate on the heap. And Laban called it ‘’Heap of Witness”, and Jacob called it ‘Witness Heap.’’… I do not cross over to you, nor you cross over to me, across this heap and this pillar, for evil intent, the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor will judge between us.’ Goodness keeps in bay competitive and harming human intentions. God’s presence keeps the balance and make the covenant work.
This is a good model of how human history should be cultivated and safeguarded. Peace is preserved if the goodness on both sides are mirrored and not the ‘dark side’ of human nature. That would leave to war, inevitably.
That’s why it is so painful to read the description of the apocalypse at the end of times. The passage from Matthew’s Gospel is an apt model of when the above ‘mirroring of goodness’ fatally breaks down. On the scale of human history, this is an apocalypse created by the darkened human heart. We can see what happens when our dark side is mirrored on a monumental scale. ‘For one nation will rise up against another, and one kingdom against the another; … Then they’ll hand you over to affliction, and they’ll kill you, and you’ll be hated by all the Gentiles because of my name.’
Christians will be part of that great drama of hatred, being caught up in this final inferno of the human heart of which God is evacuated. It is not accidental that in Jesus’ prophecy, the apocalypse starts with the destruction of the Temple. ‘I tell you, no stone will be left on another stone here that will not be destroyed.’
The Temple, just as our churches today, is the mirror, which alone can show, bring forth, and magnify the goodness in the human being. This is a ‘place’, a Presence, which alone can keep in bay our evil intentions (also on a historical scale.) When God is expelled from this mirror - humanity, literally, is in free fall. The artificial spaces we created (internet, cyber-spaces, artificial intelligence, virtual transactions) will never show us our truer self… but let our dark side freely come to surface and be totalised. Thus becomes the totalised modern self becomes the eraser of God.
When God is erased, peace is erased, and all what is entailed.
Tabernacle and Ark
There is a striking parallel between the building of the Tabernacle and Noah’s ark. The same delicate details and caring instructions. ‘Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark…And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of…’
The ark’s function is to save Noah, and through him humankind. The ark, just as the Tabernacle, is life giving. Noah’s entering the vessel and letting the pair of animals in is a shared experience with God. Overviewing the animals boarding is sharing the sentiments of the life-giving-God. Even more, it is learning, an internalising of the very nature of God, whose nature is to merge life with hope. ‘And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee.’
‘Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.’ The above ‘co-learning’ with God explains a lot. Noah’s being different from his generation did not happen by chance, neither does it to us. He does not belong to those who ‘filled the earth with corruption and violence’. He was ‘a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.’ This ‘walking with God’ is the key. Noah remained just, because he undertook the toiling work of imitating God ‒ his life-giving nature.
The Tabernacle in our churches is a great reminder of this learning. Life, democracy, the common good does not happen to us by chance. All this comes through cultivating our soul, our divine nature. If this not internalised, the destruction of all what we cherish is inevitable. The spirit of loving care, that prompted the building the tabernacle and the ark, is the only life.
Heart and Temple; Heart in the Temple
The anger of Jesus who expels the money-changers from the Temple should captivate us. The ‘commercial activity’ in the house of prayer is a symbolic contrast. It denotes all that turns the soul away from its revitalising source. ‘Money’ is indeed a profound metaphor… What are those things today which the Lord of our soul can be angry with? This question is crucial to be raised in ‘the age of distractions’ where we life amidst centrifugal fores.
What makes us dumb to our truer self? What makes us captives of the desires of our ego? What causes it that our innate narcissism always has the upper hand?
Perhaps, a good way to define the object of Jesus’ anger is to scrutinize all those things in our lives what are ‘not genuine listeners to our soul’. The problem seems to be that we are not listened to by these diverse activities. They become, like the money in the Biblical scene, just dumb mirrors hold before us. ‘Money’ is not a genuine listener to the self. It only mirrors and magnifies our innate narcissism. As an outcome, we can be lost in ourselves for good.
Is it cheap to say, that Jesus – his church - is our true mirror? Of course not. He challenges us, he rebukes us, he encourages us, he tells honestly where we are. Unlike ‘money’ (cyberspace, news, commerce), he talks to us. To our heart, which is part of his Temple.
On Radio 4, in the morning, prime time, familiar faces. Like the all too familiar voice of modern angels (occupying a city, a radio stations, a culture), Brian Cox. With his infinite smile, physics seems to have stolen the show. On the programme they are chatting as to whether not quantum physics is the ground of life. I am struck by their infinite confidence in their ‘infinite monkey cage.’ (By the way, the phrase, ‘infinite monkey cage’ as a reference to the universe betrays utmost hubris. The Russian film director, Tarkovsky was right in his (seemingly)sci-fi, Solaris when saying that our objective is not to know the cosmos but to colonise it. So here we are with our new colonisers.)
I am taken aback by the fact how easy it is for these spokesmen of the new ‘infinite good news’ to fill up the vacuum which was created when religion was evacuated from our brave (infinitely) new world.
Why do they think that ‘what physics can describe’ is the ultimate reality? As the reality? While soaring as high as the illusions of explaining the origins of human life with their new (infinite) theory of everything, we should just pause for a while. Not so much about our being puzzled as to how an earth is it that Christians, with their theology, remain silent and dazzled by this new ‘angelic’ quantum show. Rather, instead, we should stop and be challenged by prophet Jeremiah: what is really real?
It turns out, that history, human history as a continuum of past, present and future, is that very reality which should humble us. In contrast to our responsibility and accountability for what happens in it, the omni-science of Brian Cox and his new role-model friends seems to be infinitely small.
Quite possibly, it may quietly turn out that the voice of the twenty fist century was not their newly canonised discourse (by BCC). Instead, it is the brave stance of Jeremiah who wants us to spend quality time in understanding how God is the Lord of History. ‘Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.’ We can find it far more challenging to see God’s words, complexly interwoven with the living tissue of history as the ‘condition of life’. There is little hope, but nothing is impossible, our quantum physicists will have the imagination to see their laws are part of that flow of matter and life which itself comes from these Words.
Just as a last word of our being puzzled by the Coxian infinite confidence. Why do these chatty new high priests of the totalised (monkey) self think that religion and faith is as light as their morning chat-show? Why does not it occur to them that engaging God requires time? Yes, and that is the great lesson of Jeremiah, Christian faith requires time just as research does. Nay, perhaps it requires infinitely more than science spends with the ‘real’?
Suddenly a chapter from Jeremiah (1:1-19) starts speaking in a startling clarity. It offers a fresh definition of what 'religion' is. Faith is not simply about individual salvation. There is a deeper, even richer motivation for believing in God. What is this?
God reproaches the prophet and does not accept his excuse that 'Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.' Instead, God tells Jeremiah: 'Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord.'
This sending and accepting the sending is the key. Religion is about taking responsibility for our history. The prophet, our example of faith, is motivated by being accountable for the course of history... How it is (it was) shaped by us, and how it can be altered... purified, transformed, as it were, 'milligram by milligram', healed.
What the prophet teaches us that mature faith is not the narcissistic extension of the ego. 'I want to be saved' or 'I fear hell', etc. Faith, according to Jeremiah, is a healing dialogue: a commitment to heal history. Without this type of faith history remains mono-dimensional. It is like a growing, gigantic iron-ball, a closed past.
The fantastic news is that this cast-iron-rigidity, history, can be shaped. Though it is a painful clash when melting our complicity in this rigidity, history, when touched by God's word filtered through the human heart, is impressionable. Impressionable by grace!
Part of the healing desire, which we acquire through building a habitat for God’s desire for us (our churches), is what prophet Habakkuk speaks about. It is only seemingly a bitter complaint about a God who is experienced as ‘silent’ in the midst of adversities. ‘O Lord, how long shall Ii cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! Why doest thou show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance?’
The point is not blaming an ‘inattentive God’. Rather, we need to focus on the value of crying out to God. It turns out to be a crucial ability of the human person. We still crying out in pain and desire for justice - or our examining the world has ceased? This type of reflection/communication with God, even in the form of complaint and argument, is a vital function within our culture. And on an individual level, too.
Without it, life remains unexamined, unsprayed for. Consequently, unredeemable.
Psalm 132 has a strikingly honest revelation about the human condition. Also, it tells us something even more. We know that pain, challenges, even crises, frame our life. So seemingly there is nothing new at the heart of this Psalm. We know that when pain comes, we turn to God, we need to turn to Him. That is why Psalm 132 starts with the words: ‘Lord, remember David: and all his trouble’ (v.1)
The striking revelation is a positive teaching. The desire to build a temple for the Lord, and working it out, does counteract all the pain and existential crises that can befall on us. ‘I will not suffer mine eyes to sleep, neither the temples of my head to take any rest… Until I find out a place for the temple of the Lord: an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob.’
If challenges find us in the midst of building that Temple, we are in a better position to bear them. If not, for those of us, this Psalm is a remedy and resource for rebirth. Why? Because the moment we lift up our eyes to this ‘need of building/creating a dwelling place for God’, our life, we cannot explain how, is given a renewed focus. Inwardly, we become erect, supported by a personal presence. Our life energies return, and there our inner strength, as a gift, is revived.
That is why, this desire to ‘build a habitation for the mighty God of Jacob’, is a core-existential-programme in us. It is constitutive of being fully human; of being a fully functioning human being.
It is a task. It is a pulsating commandment in us. We can live it, we can forget about this task. This building an habitation for God can mean different things, though all are related. Creating that home for God in our souls, in our prayers. It can mean our physical coming to the church, to the building, where God dwells – visiting Him in the Eucharist, and in our services.
And all this, because God wants to heal is, to heal is into a fluent, continuous life. This ‘life being healed’, the building-work on the Temple is to prevent us to be completely discharged, like a battery that reaches 0 %.
At the heart of this constant healing is not our desire for the temple of God. That is why this Psalm is a revelation. It is God’s desire for us to be healed which sustains in us life uninterrupted by spiritual death. ‘For the Lord hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for himself: he hath longed for her.’ What a truth, what a recognition! This healing desire of God, in order to be manifest, needs the physical place of a church, of an altar, of a worship, of an opened Bible. Without the House of God, well looked after spiritually and physically, God’s healing desire will always stay out of reach. There is no other explanation for David’s ‘obsession’ to build the Temple.
(It is worth thinking about this life-giving desire the way in which Freud understood the significance of ‘drives’. Without this inner charge, desire, language, psychological functioning, rational reasoning will arrive to a stalemate. That is why ‘faith in God’ is a life-function of the human being. The life-function.)
What predates this passage few chapters earlier is Nehemiah’s moving account of the sight of the ruined Jerusalem. Her gates are broken, her walls are fallen, her streets are abandoned. There is such an intense presence of pain and wounded awe when Nehemiah stays awake and overlooks the city at moonlight. This is one of the most moving parts of the Bible. This sight moves him to compassion; this sight moves God to compassion. A future is born during that night, when the human soul and the Divine Soul (‘God’s Glory’) contemplates a broken past.
Today’s passages are equally moving though in a different way. The people in Judah had forgotten to keep the Sabbath. They ‘were treading the winepress on the Sabbath, and carrying sheaves and loading them onto their donkeys, as well as wine an bunches of grapes and figs and all kinds of burdens; and they were bringing them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.’
Because of the long exile, people have forgotten to remember God’s covenant by giving thanks for the Creation which they are part of. The chain of this holy remembrance is broken… The danger could not be greater: the people cannot retain their identity (and knowledge of God) unless it keeps holy what God has already made holy.
This abyss of forgetting needs to be filled up. This life saving memory needs to be reignited. The recovery of Tradition and making Law-observance alive again is the core event of Jewish history. It equals a second creation. However painful it was for all parties to reinforce the forgotten practices, this re-learning the Sabbath day was the foundation for the future. It is from this effort of Nehemiah’s generation that we owe not only the survival of Jewish religion, but the revelation of Divine Love in Jesus Christ. This period of re-generation sustained the future wisdom, and further developments of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
In practical terms, the local synagogues and Christian parishes owe a debt of gratitude to this event. Their prayer life, their charity is rooted in this event of recovering the Sabbath.
And this is an ongoing task: our present celebrations of the Eucharist and the Sacraments, within the same dynamic, ground the life of future generations of believers. Faith without the present observance cannot remain alive.
The most prosperous king in the history of Israel was king Solomon. It was not David, the warrior, but his son under whom Israel enjoyed status, peace, and prosperity. And it is striking how the success of Solomon is rooted in the Temple, which he built. From our readings these days (1 Kings 8; 9) it is clear that the most important thing for Solomon was the life of the Temple. He prayed a lot in it. He made it beautiful. He supported it. All his political affairs were consulted with the divine Presence in it. He warned his people time and again that their prosperity will depend on the ‘quality of life’ which they live with God in their Temple. Forgiveness for capital failures, new beginnings will start from the Temple – this is their sole resource and sustenance.
This is a great teaching for us, too. The life and prayer we bring to our church, God will reciprocate it! If we bring forgiveness, attention to one another, if we welcome the stranger, we run our nursery, lunch club, bible group, and other social events: God is going to add to this his own life. Our life, our joys will be doubled.
So let us explore, what can we bring and add to the life of the House of God? Queen Sheba’s visit to Solomon highlights an important ‘element’ in the life of the church. This is personal spirituality. The queen ‘came in to Solomon, and told him all that was in her heart. And Solomon told her all her problems; there was not a problem overlooked by the king which he did not tell her.’ Solomon is so one with God’s wisdom and Holy Presence, that he becomes a ‘concessioner’, who listens, forgives, releases the queen from her worries. That is the ‘model’ of the sacrament or reconciliation. This is a sacrament (confessing our sins and sharing our hopes with God) which gives the person integrity. Just as the queen of Sheba was confirmed in her integrity with this holy conversation with Solomon.
This joy of our truer self, when we are truly who we are supposed to be, is so fresh in our reading. ‘The word is true then, which I heard on my country about your speech and your intelligence, and I failed to believe what those who spoke to me told me, until I came, and my eyes saw, and look! The half was not told me. Your good qualities utterly surpass the fame of which I had heard in my country.’
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..