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Sermon for the End of the Church's Year: "Jesus left the Temple" (Mt. 24:1)

Rorate is pleased to offer to our readers a marvelous homily preached by a traditional Catholic priest last Sunday.

Destruction of the Temple by Francesco Hayez

Last Sunday after Pentecost
22 November 2015

This Sunday, indeed throughout the season of Advent  (which begins next Sunday), the Church would have us ponder the Coming of the Lord Jesus in Judgment.  In the past couple of weeks, the liturgy has already touched upon this Coming of Christ.  Recall the parable of the wheat and the tares from two weeks ago: these will grow together, but only “until the harvest”.  At that time, the reapers will be told to “gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned”, and then to gather the wheat into the barn of their master.  When the disciples of the Lord ask Him the meaning of this parable, He tells them: “Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.  The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” 

Last week we heard about the Thessalonians, whom St. Paul praises for their great faith, which prompted them to turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven (Whom He raised up from the dead), Jesus, Who hath delivered us from the wrath to come.”  This Sunday, the Coming of Christ takes center stage.

Whenever we think of the Second Coming of Christ – its definitiveness, the finality of the judgment that accompanies it, the punishment meted out to evildoers – it is understandable that we should feel some trepidation – just as the disciples of the Lord would have been struck with fear at the thought of the destruction of the Temple.  But Our Lord does associate His coming in glory with the destruction of the Temple.  And so even if the approaching season of Advent, following the exhortation of St. Paul, would have us rejoice because the Lord is nigh, we need not apologize to anyone for feeling at least a little bit fearful about the Coming of the Lord, that great and terrible day of wrath.

Today’s gospel is taken from the 24th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, verses 13-25.  But I want to focus your attention on something that happens at the very beginning of this chapter; namely Our Lord’s departure from the Temple.  Our Lord has been teaching in the temple.  More precisely, He has been excoriating the impenitent Pharisees and Scribes.  They have refused to accept Him as the Messiah, and so He denounces them with seven “woes” (curses indicative of judgment).  He concludes with the following lament (ch. 23:37-39): "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  And then, Matthew tells us (and this is what I want you to really pay attention to), (ch. 24) “Jesus left the temple and was going away…”

Okay, so what?  What’s so important about that?  To be sure, the disciples themselves probably thought nothing of it at the time.  For as the Lord was going away, Matthew makes it clear that the disciples (including himself) were noticing, not Our Lord’s departure from the Temple, but the Temple itself, together with the surrounding buildings.  In fact, they tried to get Our Lord to admire them: “his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.”  Doubtless, the Temple was an impressive structure, a dazzling sight to behold, even an eighth wonder of the world.

But upon further reflection, St. Matthew would surely have seen a deeper, prophetic significance in the Lord’s departure, and wants us to understand this prophetic meaning as well.  Our first hint that Our Lord’s departure is more than just a simple exit from the Temple precincts is the way in which Our Lord responds to His disciples’ “oo-ing and ah-ing” about the Temple.  Here is what He says: “You see all these, do you not?  Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”  As stunningly and distractingly beautiful as the Temple surely was, such foreboding words would have served well to direct the disciples’ attention to what Our Lord was saying and where he was going.  This is the second hint Matthew gives to us, reporting that “[Christ] sat on the Mount of Olives”.  How, then, does Our Lord’s departure from the Temple and His going to the Mount of Olives shed light upon the significance of His departure from the Temple?  Well, in doing these things He creates an echo with what happened before the Temple of Solomon was destroyed back in 586 BC, as witnessed and described by the prophet Ezekiel.  In chapters 10 & 11 of his book, Ezekiel relates for us the departure of the glory of God from the Temple: “And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood over the mount that is on the east side of the city” (Ez. 11:23).  What is this mount on the east side of Jerusalem?  The Mount of Olives.  One could say, then, that at this moment, when the glory of God departed from Solomon’s Temple, it suffered a kind of “abomination of desolation” or desecrating sacrilege; a kind of prelude to the destruction of the Temple.  For the Jews were incorrigibly steeped in idolatry.  The judgment of God would soon fall upon them.

But isn’t the Lord Jesus the glory of the Father?  Does He not manifest the goodness of God?  Indeed, He does.  And we are reminded of this truth at the end of almost every Mass: that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Therefore, when Jesus leaves the Temple, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father has departed from the Temple.  And given the context, the abomination of desolation about which Our Lord speaks, if not fully accomplished, has already begun in the prophetic sign of Our Lord’s departure.  And the desolation or desecration of the Temple about which Daniel had prophesied, and which took place in 167 BC.  In that year, the Gentile ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV burned Jerusalem, plundered the Temple of its sacred articles, and erected an idol to the Greek god Zeus within its precincts (1 Mac 1:31, 37, 54).  Obviously, idolatry and divine worship are incompatible, and so this action desecrated the Temple; that is, it rendered it profane. For idolatry is incompatible with divine worship.  This time, no idol has been placed within the Holy of Holies or courts of the Temple.  Nevertheless, the leaders of the Jews have rejected their Messiah and seek to destroy Him.  And Christ, the glory of  God, departs from the Temple.  Some forty years later, in A.D. 70, the desolate Temple was reduced to rubble.  God visited His people in judgment.

Why should this matter to us?  The Temple of the Jews is long gone.  Besides, it was never ours.  It matters because God’s ultimate goal was never to dwell in a building, but to dwell in us.  We are His temples, even as we are living stones of the temple of His Body, which is the Church.

Our Lord Himself assures us, “If any one love me, he will keep my word.  And my Father will love him and we will come to him and will make our abode with him” (Jn. 14:23).

And St. Paul reminds the decadent Corinthian Christians several times that they are, each and every one of them, temples of God:

1 Cor. 3:16-17:  “Know you not that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?  But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy.  For the temple of God is holy, which you are.

1 Cor. 6:19-20: "Or know you not that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God: and you are not your own?  For you are bought with a great price.  Glorify and bear God in your body.”

2 Cor. 6:16: “And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?  For you are the temple of the living God: as God saith: I will dwell in them and walk among them.  And I will be their God: and they shall be my people.”

Even the office of offering sacrifice, which takes place in a temple, St. Paul manages to relate to the temple of our bodies, when he exhorts the Christians in Rome: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and the acceptable and the perfect will of God”  (Rom. 12:1-2)  We cannot do whatever we want with our bodies, as if God dwells only in our souls and is indifferent to what we do with our bodies.

If, then, we are all temples of the living God, it is God who should dwell in us, not idols or the devils who stand behind them.  Depending on how we choose to live our lives, God will either dwell within us or He will depart from us.  If we strive to love self even to the contempt of God; if we exchange the living God for an idol, making it the lord of our lives; if we conform ourselves to this world rather than conform ourselves to Christ, let us not be surprised to discover that God will have departed from us.  For why should the God who made us for Himself co-exist with the idols we have chosen for our gods?  He doesn’t.  God, who is Goodness and Holiness itself, cannot co-exist with deliberate, freely and knowingly chosen mortal sin.  He will depart and leave that defiled temple desolate.  To be sure, as long as we live, repentance and conversion are always possible.  His mercy always remains available.  He will never refuse to return to the temple of a contrite heart.  But if we should die unrepentant, our desolate temple shall likewise suffer God’s judgment.  Unlike the Temple, our bodies and souls shall not cease to exist.  Instead, after the resurrection of the body, the damned  shall suffer the pain of loss (loss of the presence of God), as well as varying degrees of pain of sense (in accordance with the magnitude of their sins) for all eternity.  Like the tares that the enemy sowed in the field of wheat, such souls  shall be “cast into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Instead of eternal life, the damned shall suffer eternal death: a kind of destruction, to be sure, but not an annihilation of their very existence.

On the other hand, if we strive to love God even to the contempt of self; if we refuse to be led astray by false messiahs; if we refuse to regard money, pleasure, wealth, honor, or power as our idols, if we persevere in the midst of persecution; if we remain steadfast even as others abandon the faith and fall into apostasy, God will always be with us.  Even if, in the midst of suffering, we should feel as though God has abandoned us, nevertheless, He will still be with us.

As I mentioned, the apostles were struck by the outward splendor and beauty of the Temple, and would certainly have been disturbed by the very thought of its destruction.  How much more, then, ought we to appreciate the splendor and beauty of our bodies and souls clothed in the grace of divine sonship!  How much more ought we to be disturbed by the mere thought of committing a single mortal sin!

Let us also consider that Christ is the Life and Light of the world.  As long as we are faithful to Him, He will dwell within us.  And as long as He dwells within us, we will be able to bring light and life to the world.  We will be agents of the kingdom of heaven and cultivators of the culture of life.  But if we are unfaithful to Christ, if we reject the Lord of life and light for this or that idol, then in one way or another we will find ourselves in the service of the kingdom of Satan, the forces of darkness, and the culture of death.  We will find ourselves following false Christs, false prophets, who will leave us morally confused, even blind. 

Pope St. John Paul II said as much 20 years ago in his important encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).  In a passage which I am about to quote, he refers specifically to the crime of abortion, but you can replace abortion with many other crimes against life, and against human nature.  Indeed, and unfortunately, the thoughts revealed at the recent synod of bishops make this passage all the more relevant:

“The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake.  Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.  In this regard the reproach of the Prophet [Isaiah] is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20).” 

Given the incompatibility between God and sin, those in the Church who would try to convince us that those living in sin can worthily receive the Lord under their roofs in holy communion will have much to answer for.

Finally, let us remember this basic truth of faith: This world is finite; it is passing away.  But we were made to enjoy that eternal, unchanging, infinite happiness that only God can provide by abiding in us and we in Him.  Therefore, our happiness cannot be found in the goods of this world.  That is why, as St. Peter tells us (2 Pt. 13-18): “We look for new heavens and a new earth according to [the] promises [of Christ], in which justice dwells.  Wherefore, dearly beloved, waiting for these things, be diligent that you may be found before him unspotted and blameless in peace.… Take heed, lest being led aside by the error of lawless men, you fall from your own steadfastness.  But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be glory both now and unto the day of eternity, Amen.”