Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2006
St. Martin de Porres, Cincinnati
(Based on Psalm 19; 1st Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25)
I’d like you to join me on a trip. In our imaginations let’s travel to Rome.
We walk through that great plaza in front of St. Peter’s that you’ve seen many times on TV. We walk up that long set of steps and pass through the great bronze doors. We are met with a spectacular view of the interior of that amazing basilica. And on the right we notice a crowd standing before an incredible work of art. It’s the Pieta – the awesome statue of the sorrowful mother Mary as she cradles the lifeless body of Jesus after it has been taken down from the cross.
Perhaps there is a tour guide telling the onlookers about the scene they are viewing. Perhaps not, and the people are simply standing there mute. But in any case, all of a sudden there is a rustle behind us and a man breaks through the crowd, rushes up to the statue, pulls a hammer out of the inside of his coat, and begins to smash the statue violently. We can hear the sound of the metal hammer crashing against the marble; we can see chips flying into the air. Until people gets their wits about them and rush to tackle the man and lead him away.
How would we react to such an experience? Would there be sheer numbness? Perhaps immediate anger? Maybe we would feel we had witnessed an act of blasphemy. In any case you can be sure that we would remember that scene for the rest of our days.
And it actually happened, in our time. I couldn’t find the exact date but it was in the past 30-40 years.
Why remind ourselves of this very disturbing event?
I tell it because I am profoundly convinced that it is almost impossible for you and me to capture the level of shock the Jews had to feel when Jesus erupted in anger and began to drive the money-changers out of the temple, as we just read in today’s Gospel. This was the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people, the site of the presence of the All-holy One. (As I thought over the reading it occurred to me that it might give us a tiny sense of the violent anger of the Muslims at the cartoons mocking the Prophet.)
Jesus explains what he doing by crying out “Why have you made my Father’s house into a place of commerce and oppression, where you prey upon the poor with taxes so they can offer sacrifice?” The deranged man in St. Peter’s might have shouted “You have made my Father’s house a museum, for gawking tourists who haven’t the foggiest idea of what this is all about.”
And what is it all about? It’s all about signs. John tells us that ‘they’ challenged him; from what we know in Matthew and Luke it’s a fair guess that ‘they’ are the scribes and priests of the temple. They ask him for a sign: what gives you the right to do a thing like this?
It was an old story across the time of his ministry. Again and again the crowds would gather at his coming and ask for a sign. And he cried out in exasperation: “This is a wicked and adulterous generation. Always asking for signs. You will get no sign except the sign of Jonah. As Jonah was three days in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days in the tomb before rising from the dead.”
They wanted to turn him into a magician, the fellow who could do amazing tricks. Sort of the way we frequently call on someone at a party: “Hey, wait till you see Joe’s card trick! You’re not going to believe it.”
What Jesus is really saying is, “I am the temple! I am the sign: this very body. You may try to destroy it but in three days it will live.” Or in another sense: if you want a sign, this action is the kind of sign you get.”
And what does the sign say? It says “You have distorted the kind of religious practice that
gives glory to my Father.” The author of the Psalm had said it centuries before: “You did not want sacrifices and oblations. But you gave me a body and I said: Here I am, I come to do your will.” That’s what it’s all about.
That’s what Paul was referring to in the Letter to the Corinthians. The Jews seek signs and the Greeks, the Gentiles, seek ‘wisdom’ but we preach Jesus crucified.
Those people Paul calls “Jews” and “Greeks” are not gone from our earth, of course. They are not simply relics of his time. They continue to exist all around us — and in us.
We are the Jews still seeking signs, turning the all-holy God into an answer machine that must respond to our need for the sensational, the titillating. Just think what happens every couple of years and gets played up in our media (and even in our Catholic papers). Hey, some woman just saw Mary’s face in the glass windows on the side of a bank in Florida! Or think how much ink has been wasted over the years trying to prove – or disprove – the authenticity of the shroud of Turin. Let’s ask ourselves: If it turned out to be genuine, would that affect our faith? Or if turned out to be a fake, would that affect our faith? If so, it would only prove that such ‘faith’ is not what Jesus was talking about.
And we are also the Greeks, still hankering after ‘wisdom.’ Trying to save ourselves by thinking. What about all the fuss over intelligent design and evolution? That’s a handy diversion, isn’t it? How about an ‘essential’ distinction between the priesthood of all believers and the ministerial priesthood?
So much avoidance. When the only answer lies in the body of the crucified and risen Jesus. The body we receive in the Eucharist. The body to which we are joined so we can embody that same love and self-offering in the care of our neighbor.
Paul ponders it all. He reminds us God’s wisdom is foolish and his power weak. It is foolish, isn’t it? To give up your life for someone else? To serve rather than be served? When every message of our society tells us to look out for Number One? And the body is weak and powerless. They looked up at the cross and shouted “See if you can come down – one more sign! – then we’ll believe.”
It’s foolish and weak. But ry as people will, it can’t be destroyed! The Father will raise it up after every kind of death, again and again. After the deaths of weakness and betrayal on our part. Again and again.
We’ve been following the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark all these weeks. And when you see the complete story of that gospel it’s really the single story of Jesus in event after event trying to communicate to his disciples what he was really all about. While the disciples, in event after event, distort and misunderstand and project on him their idea of what a messiah should be and do. All the way down to the betrayal in the garden and the flight from the cross.
Isn’t it interesting that the first person the gospels say actually got it is a Roman centurion standing at the foot of the cross? He probably never saw Jesus before, or heard his teaching. He simply watched Jesus on the cross, saw the way he faced death, and said – maybe to himself, but at least loud enough for others to hear – “Truly, this was the son of God!”
He caught the sign, he understood the real meaning of wisdom.
In a short time we will welcome the catechumens from our community who are preparing for Baptism. We will pray over them as they enter upon the next stage of their spiritual journey. You may have seen in the paper the other day that at the cathedral and up in Dayton over 1700 men and women were entered into the book of the elect. What a great sign to us, that they are proclaiming before the world that they recognize the sign and want to give themselves over into the Lord’s hands. (Did you ever think that 1700 people would constitute a decent sized parish?)
As we pray for these people of hope, let’s pray also for ourselves that the Father will continue to transform us ever more deeply in the likeness of Jesus and make of us a sign of the power of his love in our world.