The following homily was shared with us by a traditional Catholic priest, whose homilies we have printed a number of times (most recently, last week).
For now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.
The night is passed and the day is at hand. — Rom. 13:11-12
First Sunday of Advent
29 November 2015
Inasmuch as God chooses to take up His abode in the hearts of the faithful, He may be said to dwell in many temples. At the same time, however, the Scriptures liken the faithful to so many “living stones” (1 Pt. 2:5) that are incorporated into the Temple of God, the Church. This same Church has Christ for its chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20), who has decided to build His Church on Kephas, the visible “Rock” (Mt. 16:18), whose faith in Christ, though tried, shall not fail — so much so, that Peter (together with his successors) is charged with confirming the brethren (Lk. 22:32); that is, when their faith falters his will be a source of strength. This same Church likewise has been built upon the foundations of the apostles (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21:14) and, by extension, their successors through the laying on of hands. This Church is to last until the end of the world. However, we have seen how our Lord speaks of the end of the world (i.e., the cosmos) and the destruction of the Temple of the Old Covenant as if these were the same thing. What, then, are we to make of the relationship between the Temple of the New Covenant (the Church), and the cosmos? Will the Church, like the Temple of the Old Covenant, also suffer destruction?
Let’s begin by considering the association between Temple and cosmos. At first glance, this association, even identification, seems strange, even forced: what does the Temple have to do with the world? Conditioned as we are by a secular worldview, we moderns assume that the two realities, the Temple and the world, have nothing to do with one another, just as the same worldview informs society with the erroneous belief that the Church has nothing to do with the State. But whatever their problems, the Jews of Christ’s day did not labor under a secular mentality as do we. They took for granted the link between the Temple and the cosmos. Not only did they understand the Temple to be a microcosm of the world (a miniature replica of the world, but they also understood the world to be a macro-temple of God. In the words of the Psalmist: “He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever” (Ps. 78:69). Thus, the worship of God in the Temple represented the worship given to God in the name of all creation. Rather than something utterly separate from the cosmos, the Temple was its pinnacle: the nexus between heaven and earth, between God and man. And the harmonious and ordered relationship enjoyed between God and the Jews in the Temple represented the relationship that all nations and peoples were somehow supposed to have with God. In the words of the Psalmist: “O clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy, for the Lord is high, terrible: a great king over all the earth.… God shall reign over the nations” (Ps. 46:2-3, 9).
Considering the numerous Biblically-based aspects of this link between Temple and cosmos, one that is of particular importance is the significance of the cornerstone or foundation stone.
That the Temple should have a foundation stone makes sense to us. But the Bible also speaks of the world as having a foundation or foundations, as when Our Lord speaks of the kingdom prepared for those blessed of His Father, saying, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34). And in the Book of Job, God asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who has laid the measures thereof, if you know, or who has stretched the line upon it? Upon what are its bases grounded? Or who laid the corner stone thereof” (Job 38:4-6)? To be asked such questions by God would doubtless fill anyone with fear and trembling. After all, to understand the answer to these questions suggests a comprehension of the very mind and purpose of God, to say nothing of the mystery with which Job found himself struggling: that of pain and suffering, sin and death. Hence, for the Jews, the notion of a foundation stone was imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, given its association with the God’s work of creation itself.
To be sure, the foundation stone of a building is important on just the practical level, as it determines the positions of all the other stones: for all of these latter stones are set ultimately in reference to the foundation stone. But since the Jews understood the Temple to be a microcosm, it should come as no surprise to us that they recognized in its foundation stone a significance that went far beyond its practical importance, reaching into the realm of the metaphysical and theological. For just as the foundation stone made possible the order and harmony amongst all the other stones of the Temple, so too it represented that foundation stone of the cosmos; namely that which made the cosmos a place of order, harmony, and even intelligibility — the very source and cause of all the laws and phenomena of nature that scientists seek to understand, as well the source and purpose of the natural law or moral order.
Given the significance of the foundation stone of the Temple, we can appreciate why, when the masons laid the foundations of the Second Temple, the Jews present were deeply moved. The scene is described for us in the Book of Ezra: “And when the masons laid the foundations of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their ornaments with trumpets: and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise God by the hands of David king of Israel. And they sung together hymns, and praise to the Lord: because he is good, for his mercy endures forever towards Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, praising the Lord, because the foundations of the temple of the Lord were laid. But many of the priests and the Levites, and the chief of the fathers and the ancients that had seen the former temple; when they had the foundation of this temple before their eyes, wept with a loud voice: and many shouting for joy, lifted up their voice” (Ez. 3:10-12).
We have a name for this “foundation of all reality.” It is the Word or Logos of God, who in the beginning was with God and was God. “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). For this reason, all of creation “indelibly bears the mark of creative Reason which orders and directs it”; for which reason the Psalms sing “with joy-filled certainty” how “the heavens show forth the glory of God, and the firmament declares the work of His hands” (Ps. 18:2).
As Catholics, we believe that the eternal Word of God became incarnate in our Lord Jesus. Therefore, we must believe that Jesus is the Foundation of both temple and cosmos. For this reason, our lives should not be fragmented such that one part deals with the world, while the other part deals with the Church. God did not intend for us to lead schizophrenic lives. We need not live as though the domains of faith and reason had nothing in common, no common source or foundation. Pope St. John Paul II explains it this way:
In Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, faith recognizes the ultimate appeal to humanity, an appeal made in order that what we experience as desire and nostalgia may come to its fulfilment. This truth, which God reveals to us in Jesus Christ, is not opposed to the truths which philosophy perceives. On the contrary, the two modes of knowledge lead to truth in all its fullness. The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This unity of truth, natural and revealed, is embodied in a living and personal way in Christ, as the Apostle reminds us: Truth is in Jesus (cf. Eph 4:21; Col 1:15-20). He is the eternal Word in whom all things were created, and he is the incarnate Word who in his entire person reveals the Father (cf. Jn 1:14, 18).
But the Jews, as much as they understood the unity between temple and cosmos, could not bring themselves to acknowledge that the Word of God, the foundation of all reality, had become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Is it any wonder, then, that Our Lord would Himself prophesy that, before His generation came to an end, this Temple would be so thoroughly destroyed that not a single stone would be left atop another? They had rejected the Word Incarnate, the eternal Logos, the foundation of both cosmos and their Temple. Therefore, it was only fitting that the Temple stones, which had been laid and ordered in reference to the foundation stone, should themselves manifest that rejection by losing the order they possessed in virtue of the foundation stone. It was also fitting that another Temple should be built wherein those who did accept the Word Incarnate could worship within the parameters of the New and everlasting Covenant established by the supreme sacrifice of the same Word Incarnate, the Savior of the world. Indeed, Christ speaks of building a Temple — His Temple — in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. After Simon confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Christ declares: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are ‘Rock’, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16:16-18).
Speaking of this new Temple or Church, St. Peter, the first Pope, writes: “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and made precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, chosen and precious. And he that shall believe in him will not be put to shame.’ To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone,’ and ‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’, for they stumble because they disobey the Word, as they were destined to do’” (1 Pt. 2:4-6). And St. Paul echoes this thought when, writing to the Ephesians, says of Christ: “Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone, in whom all the building, being framed together, grows up into an holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:20-21).
In both these passages, Christ is identified as the chief corner stone of the Church, the Temple of God of the New Covenant. The bishops of the Church, sharing as they do in the supreme authority of Christ (Lk. 10:16), participate in Christ’s role of being the foundation stone of the Church. Hence, the Church is described as having been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20), while the faithful are its “living stones” (1 Pt. 2:4) who have been “built” into “the temple of the Lord…for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).
As we know, unlike the Temple of the Old Covenant, Our Lord Himself assures us that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). Considering the frailty of human nature, such an assurance could not be more apt. Were Christ the sole foundation of the Church, we would not need such assurances. But because He has chosen to allow frail men to share in His role as Foundation Stone, such assurances certainly go a long way to assuage the faithful who experience in one way or another the frailty of the shepherds of the Church, including the Pope. Such frailty doubtless causes these visible foundations of the Church to tremble, sometimes to such an extent that the integrity or safety of the whole structure of the Church can reasonably be questioned. The faithful grow anxious and uncertain. Throughout the annals of the Church’s history, the Church’s foundations have thus trembled and shook: well-intentioned popes and bishops have made disastrous decisions; some have led dissolute lives; bishops have taught or embraced one heresy or another, or promoted perverted and unnatural behavior as though it were a good to be embraced. Popes too have caused major tremors by publicly entertaining and promoting heresy (even if they did so in a private capacity, never acting in an official capacity); they have acted in a way that sowed, or threatened to sow, doctrinal or moral confusion. Many popes, even those who may have exhibited great personal holiness, have neglected their duty to confirm their fellow bishops in the faith, often choosing instead to remain silent in the face of rank heresy or moral corruption. Still others have rocked the Church by indulging in ambiguity or by dividing their words from their deeds. Still others (e.g., the Renaissance Popes) have embraced the agendas and concerns of the secular elite, even while neglecting the mission of the Church to convert the world to Christ. Little wonder that relatively few popes are canonized saints, and even fewer are acknowledged by the judgment of history to be truly great popes!
Obviously, the audacity of Christ to allow frail men to act as visible foundations of the Church explains why the Church necessarily enjoys the support of the Holy Spirit through the charism of infallibility. Otherwise, the Church would have been destroyed long ago just as surely as the Temple of the Old Covenant. Notwithstanding the weakness and malice of men, the Church will endure to the end of time because God is almighty. The raging waters of the Church’s enemies (both within and without) cannot overpower divine omnipotence. As the Psalmist says, “The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee: and they were afraid, and the depths were troubled” (Ps. 76:17). And as long as he kept his eyes on the Lord, frail St. Peter could, like Christ, enjoy a certain dominion over his enemies, in the way that he could walk atop stormy waves of Lake Galilee. And even as he sank because he did take his eyes away from the Lord, Christ reached out and kept St. Peter from sinking. Christ does the same with His Church.
That said, it remains worth pondering what the relationship is between the Church, the Temple of the New Covenant, and the World. The first point to consider is that the Church is not a physical structure as was the Temple of the Old Covenant. To be sure, it has a visible structure such that, on account of its four marks (it is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”) it can be identified and distinguished from other ecclesial entities. At the same time, it is not a Church restricted to a single building within which God is worshipped in and through the Sacrifice of the New Covenant. As Our Lord assured the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23). Hence, unlike Solomon’s Temple, and the Second Temple, the Church is not something that can be destroyed in a physical way. Thus, “destruction” would be said of the Church by way of analogy, involving her “foundations” and “living stones” and whether they are ordered to Christ, the chief cornerstone.
In our day, many Catholics have left the Church. Some of them have joined other ecclesial communities, while others have returned completely to paganism. Other Catholics divide the Church from the cosmos: they accept Christ as their corner stone, but do not consider Him to be the chief cornerstone of everyone, insofar as He is the source and end of natural law, the foundation of all reality. Catholic politicians seem most prone to this fragmented outlook. All of these Catholics suffer from varying degrees of apostasy: they are like so many temple stones in need of realignment, or that have fallen to the ground. In this respect, the Church is undergoing a kind of destruction, though others may prefer to call it a purification. In any case, we should remember that Our Lord ties His coming to some kind of apostasy when He asks whether the Son of man, when He comes, shall find faith on earth? (Lk. 18:8). And while this lack of faith is analogous to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, where not one stone was left upon another (Mt. 24:2), because of the intrinsic connection between temple and cosmos, it is only fitting that the lack of faith on the part of so many ‘dead stones’ is manifested in the dissolution of the cosmos as we know it. As St. John tells us, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone: and the sea is now no more” (Rev. 21:1).
When Christ returns, however, He will do so to avenge those who have remained faithful to Him, who “cry to Him day and night”, as one coming to the rescue of a helpless widow (see Lk. 18:1-8).
Are we, then, near the end of the world? Will Christ be returning any day now? To be sure, things look bleak. But who is to say that things will not become bleaker still? All we know is that, the darker the world becomes, the more unstable the human foundations of the Church become, the nearer our salvation will be — nearer than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11). The darker things become, the more reason we the faithful have to walk in the light of faith and remain in the household of God (Eph. 2:19). As long as we remain in this light, the darkness of night is already passed, even as we await the coming of the full light of day, when the Sun of Justice arrives. With God’s help, may we all strive to remain aligned with Christ the chief cornerstone, that we ourselves may always be living stones in the temple of His body. With the armor of light and the shield of faith, we shall be able to extinguish the fiery darts of the most wicked one” (Eph. 6:16), the devil, so as not be among those who were destined to disobey the Word (cf. 1 Pt. 2:8). Thus, we shall, like the stars in the heavenly firmament, proclaim the glory of God for all to see. And we shall have no reason to “wither away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world” (Lk. 21:26). Rather, we shall be able to look up with heads held high, because our redemption shall be at hand.