What Does the Temple Mean for Us Christians? Reply


Feast of the Presentation of the Lord


This Sunday’s Gospel reading contains a hymn many people pray before going to bed at night, the Canticle of Simeon.

“Now, Lord, you may let your servant go in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

As a bedtime prayer, Simeon’s Canticle brings a deep and abiding sense of peace, rest, and completion at the end of the day. At the end of each Day of Creation, God says “It is good,” and on the Seventh Day, He rests. We too are called to recognize the good things God provides each day and put our thoughts and cares to rest, laying them and the fruit of our hard day’s work in His hands, praising Him for His many blessings, and entrusting our lives to Him. That is how God intended it to be, from the beginning.

Why was it appropriate for Simeon to pronounce this hymn upon seeing the Lord enter his Temple? Put yourself in the shoes of Mary and Joseph who would have found it odd for this aged stranger to take the child out of his mother’s arms and break into sermon.

Now, imagine how taken aback they were when he turned to Mary and said, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce!” Simeon’s tirade takes an abrupt turn – sounding more like a wakeup call than a bedtime prayer. He starts to sound crazed, calling the child “a sign of contradiction… that the thoughts of many would be revealed.”

We might think these puzzling words make more sense to us than to Mary and Joseph, since we understand them in reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But it’s likely that Mary and Joseph understood better than we do, given their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Simeon’s refences to the “Lord’s servant,” “a light of revelation to the Gentiles,” and “the glory of God’s people Israel” allude to the “Servant Oracle” from Isaiah 49, which we read in the First Reading two weeks ago. Malachi’s prophesy, in this Sunday’s First Reading, sheds even more light on Simeon’s delight when he saw Jesus appear in the Temple:

And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

Whenever the word LORD (ADONAI) is capitalized in the text, it always denotes the Holy Name of God, YHWH, in Hebrew. Thus, as we read in St. Luke’s Gospel, Simeon had been waiting his entire life to see the LORD GOD (YHWH) himself enter into his Temple. Upon seeing the Christ Child, Simeon cannot hold back his praise. God’s entering into his Temple signifies reunification and restoration: a return to the way God intended it to be, from the beginning.

Note the irony: Simeon proclaims that he can be at peace, at long last, upon seeing a child brought into the Temple, built by Herod, the man who intends to kill that child. Given the circumstances and who that child truly is, Simeon fittingly calls Him “a sign of contradiction.”

What is the significance of the Temple?

For the Jews, the Temple is more than a place for worship and sacrifice, it is the sacred space where God and man abide together here on earth. One ought to ask, why does God need an abode here on earth? On the one hand, he’s got heaven for all eternity, while on the other hand, the entire earth is his as well. Jesus himself seems to diminish the need for a temple when he says to the Samaritan woman at the well:

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)

The Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation use temple imagery from the Old Testament as an allegorical sign of Christ’s everlasting sacrifice as an expiation for sin, once and for all. That is why in Christianity, there is no temple – no one specific place, designated for worship and sacrifice where God abides. For us, Christians, Christ is the Temple. He made this clear when questioned about his authority to purify the temple:

And Jesus said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)

Does this mean that the temple building is insignificant to us, Christians? No.

The temple is an architectural sign of God’s covenant with Israel. Initially, when the Israelites were tent dwellers, wandering in the desert for 40 years, God also dwelt in a tent, called the tabernacle. The pillar of smoke that followed the Israelite camp would fill the tabernacle to signify God’s presence among them. Saint John alludes to God the Son’s being a tent dweller when he says, the Word became flesh and dwelt – in Greek, literally, pitched his tent – among us, (John 1:14) to exemplify the extent to which God goes to be intimate with us.

After many years had passed and the Israelites were settled nicely in their land, King David came to this realization: “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:2) A man after God’s own heart, David determined that he would build God a house.

God’s response to David, through the Prophet Nathan, basically consisted in God’s saying that he didn’t need David – a man – to build him a house, although that’s a kind gesture. Instead, God would build David a house – i.e., a dynasty. God then swore an oath that David’s throne would be established forever. God’s covenant oath thereby guaranteed that one of David’s descendants would always be King of Israel and that his Kingdom would be everlasting. This anointed son of David would be formally known as God’s own son, according to the covenant God made with David. (See 1 Chronicles 17:1–15)

As a sign of God’s covenant with David, David’s son Solomon built God’s temple in Jerusalem. Thereafter, the King’s throne and the Temple in Jerusalem would always be a joint-sign of God’s covenant, in the temporal order, that is.

In time, David’s temple was destroyed and his royal line dethroned at the onset of the Babylonian Exile. When the Jews returned from exile, they rebuilt their temple under the regency of the Persians – the line of David was not restored to the throne. The Second Temple was notably shabby in comparison with the First built under King Solomon.

Fast-forwarding about 500 years, King Herod “the Great” (not from the line of David, nor even a Jew, for that matter) would build the grandiose Third Temple. Jesus was referring to this temple when he said, take a good look: “not one stone will be left standing on top of another.” The temple that Herod built is the setting for today’s first reading.

The temple’s significance is not merely symbolic, for Christ not only taught and worshiped there, he called it His Father’s House. But a temple made by human hands is still a stand-in for what God had intended from the beginning.

The original Temple was God’s creation. The ultimate Temple is His New Creation, the Church. Through His death and resurrection, Christ’s presence dwells in us. There is no more need for a building made with human hands. Christ’s Mystical Body is the Temple. That is why it is appropriate for us, at the end of each day to call to mind God’s presence within us and pray, with the whole Church, the canticle of Simeon:

Protect us Lord, as we stay awake,
Watch over us as we sleep,
That a wake we may keep watch with Christ,
And asleep rest in his peace.
Now, Lord, you may let your servant go in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.

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