Sermon: What is Your Temple?
“Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
Was Jesus wrong? Or did we just miss it? How can we explain that He prophesied the end of the world within one generation (40 years for the Jewish reckoning), and yet, almost two thousand years later, we are still here?
Not long after the rise of Protestantism, it became common to think that the Lord’s prophecy had in fact not been fulfilled. A group of German Lutheran theologians postulated that, 1) Jesus was essentially an apocalyptic Jewish preacher who had promised to come again quickly. 2) The Apostles all believed that He would come again quickly. 3) He didn’t. 4) In desperation, the Apostles founded Christianity, which ended up being very different than the preaching of Jesus.
The solution? They called it “demythologizing.” The idea was that we needed to get rid of all the fantastical stuff from the Bible – the miracles, the prophecies, etc. It doesn’t matter what Jesus did or said, but just that there was a Jesus. And you know, he was a good guy.
Maybe you, like me, know some people who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. They might think they’re being pretty original. But they’re not. It all started hundreds of years ago with some really boring German Lutheran theology professors. And people like Thomas Jefferson, who cut all the miracle stories out of his Bible.
We tend to think of “being religious” as something we choose to be or not be. You can choose whether or not you can go to church. You can choose whether or not to pray. You can choose whether or not to follow a religion’s teachings. So that means you can choose whether or not to be religious, right?
Actually, no, it doesn’t. Men and women just are religious. It is a part of our nature. We can’t help but create ritual; we can’t help but worship.
Ask anyone who’s been to Arlington National Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The solemnity and decorum with which this rite is carried out – the absolute silence of the crowd – taps into the essentially liturgical structure of human activity. Every hour, “a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment takes 21 deliberate steps across the plaza … at the heart of Arlington National Cemetery. The guard pauses for 21 seconds, changes direction and switches his weapon to the opposite shoulder, before pausing for 21 more seconds. Then the ritual begins anew.” Last week, for the first time since the dedication of tomb 100 years ago, members of the public were allowed onto the plaza. “Visitors lined up for hours for the opportunity to pay their respects and lay flowers at the white marble tomb, which reads, ‘Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.’”
Why were people so excited to step past the invisible barrier and touch this tomb? Surely something more than forbidden fruit syndrome was operating here. For love of country and love of those who have served her so generously, certainly. But there is much more. For those fleeting moments, those who waited for hours were able to step into a sacred precinct, coming into contact not just with the resting place of this man, but of what he represents: honor, dignity, valor, sacrifice. In a word, something of the divine.
We can think of less edifying examples as well. You likely haven’t been to a mall in a while, but try to tap into those memories for a second. There is a large, open, vertical space. You are ushered into a place outside of this world, outside time, a place with its own seasons, holidays, and rhythms of life. Like a great medieval cathedral, small chapels line the sides of this temple of commercialism, as the devotees flit from idol to idol. Instead of images of the saints, the vested mannequins invite our devotion and imitation, offering us a vision of the good life. If you dress like me, if you use these earbuds, if you hold this phone, you will be happy like me!
Whether it’s the mall, the sports arena, the concert hall, or the political rally, people just can’t help but enact liturgy or ritual because they are naturally religious. We can choose not to be Christian, but we can’t choose not to be religious. We can choose not to come to church, but we can’t choose not to have a temple. The only real choice is which temple will be ours.
If being spiritual but not religious is a myth, the idea that we can be Christ-followers without the Church is an even bigger one. It is not possible to love Jesus but hate religion. Jesus was the devout adherent of a religion: Judaism. He did not do away with authority, ritual, or Tradition. Rather, he fulfilled the Old Covenant and instituted new rituals and new authority. He claimed the power to transform the rituals of Judaism as only God Himself can do. “Over ancient forms of worship, newer rites of grace prevail,” as St. Thomas’s hymn puts it. It is clear that Jesus wanted to set up a kingdom, a kingdom in which we will see Him coming in power and glory. And He clearly states that He will confer that Kingdom upon His followers, and that the care of that Kingdom is entrusted to His twelve apostles, whose leadership continues in the Catholic Church through the office of the Bishop. Kingdoms have rules, authority, rituals, and tradition. You cannot love the King but hate His kingdom.
I hope this sounds at least somewhat familiar, because it’s all tied up with what we saw two weeks ago about the four ways of loving God. We love God with our whole minds, I said, by choosing which desires we are going to cultivate. We are always cultivating desire because we are always worshipping.
In order to cultivate the right desires, then, we need to worship at the right Temple. Now, I realize that I’m preaching to the choir. You are here, at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, worshiping in the true Temple. But I think there are still some relevant points here for all of us:
First, even though we are here, this is not our only temple. All of us – even the priests – spend most of our time elsewhere. (Contrary to the children, and even adults, who see me at the grocery store and ask, “What are you doing here?”). We can’t just think that we checked the “worship box” in the right column because we went to Mass on Sunday. Remember – we are always worshiping because we are always religious. What are the other worship experiences that I take part in, and what are they training me to love?
Second, the important thing about worship isn’t just what we worship, but the way we worship. We can talk about Christ, Sacred Scripture, the Catechism all day long, but if the way we live our lives reflects the frantic, hectic pace of the world, we are still caught up in worldly worship. The rhythms and structures of our lives do far more to form our desires than our thoughts because we are not primarily thinking beings – we are loving beings.
This has some deep implications for the way we live our lives. Having the right temple all the other hours of the week isn’t easy. It means making real sacrifices. But remember: “It is only when we sacrifice radically that we love radically. And it is only in radical love that we can find radical joy.” Radical means “at the root.” The root of rightly ordered love isn’t moments of enormous heroism, it’s the day in and day out decisions that habituate the love of our hearts to desire what is most good. It’s the parents who limits the amount of sports their children will play, the teen who chooses not to spend time with kids making bad decisions, the employee who objects to participating in what she knows is wrong. Our sacrifices reveal our loves.
Third, the distinction between what we worship and the way we worship matters not just outside the walls of the church but even more so within them. If the rhythm and spirit of Christian worship takes the general structure of secular liturgy and overlays Christian words on top, the result is not a Christian liturgy but a necessarily secular-pagan one. It might feel good, and we might easily confuse those good feelings with a religious encounter, it might hold our attention for a while, but what we are worshiping is determined not just by the words we say and the thoughts we think, but by the structure of what we do.
We have gradually more deeply anchored the worship of our parish in historic Catholic worship in order to offer a firm and compelling alternative to the secular liturgies of the world. We do this because we are convinced that “what might stop people short—what might truly haunt them—will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heaven.” And even more importantly, because only traditional Catholic worship has the power to reorient the heart away from the melodies of the world.
We never really answered the question, though. Did Jesus’s prophecy come true? We can say “yes” because His words refer first to the Jewish Temple, which was indeed demolished within 40 years when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem. But the greater part is still to come, the great and glorious day when the Son of Man will be coming on the clouds of Heaven.
“Spiritual but not religious” sounds awfully nice, but it is a failed experiment. The religious impulse can be suppressed, but it can never be eliminated. The desire for ritual and worship always bubbles back to the surface of the human person and human society. The final question is never, “Will we worship?” but “what?”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXXIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment. 1435-1440.
More on the tomb of the unknown soldier.
On the cultivation of desire and right Christian worship, see
James K. A. Smith, You are What You Love