Sunday, 15 November 2015

2 before Advent: My, what large stones you have! Or, the Temple that will never fall


The disciples were almost incredulous at the size of the stones the Temple was made of, and well they might be.
Some weighed more than 100 tonnes, and the walls were twenty storeys high. But, you might wonder, hadn't they been there before? Perhaps not. None of them were local to Jerusalem. For them, going there was much like going to the Vatican or Hagia Sophia for the first time might be to us, but without the benefit of guide books or photographs beforehand. Even their parents or grandparents' reminiscences might not have lived up to the reality, since the Temple had been extensively and opulently rebuilt by King Herod fifty years before, surrounded by soaring Greek columns and vast cloisters. It's not surprising that it exceeded their visual expectations; but what the Temple meant to them, their symbolic preconception of it, would have been very clear indeed, and only magnified by the staggering immensity of its architecture, because the Temple meant nothing less than their Jewish identity and independence. This was the Second Temple, and had stood for 500 years. It had variously been defiled by Syrian and Greek overlords, one of whom even had a statue of Zeus installed and pigs sacrificed on the altar. But since Rome took over in 63BC, the Temple had been purified and its rituals restored. By Jesus' time, it was the finest place of worship ever built.
And Jesus said that it would fall. As, of course, it did, in AD70, sacked by the Romans after the Jewish rebellions, and you can see the booty being carried in triumph today on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Mark's Gospel, the earliest of the four, was written around the same time, so its author knew about the fall of the Temple, but that does not mean that Jesus did not prophesy it. Here again we can put ourselves in the disciples' shoes and imagine what this meant to them: it's as if we had just come out of worship in St Paul's Cathedral or St Peter's, and Jesus was telling us that this great, inspiring symbol of our faith was going to be torn down, destroyed, or maybe like Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque. We would struggle to believe it, but we can imagine it.
Harder to imagine is why Jesus prophesied this at all. We given a clue in our Old Testament reading from Daniel. It's one of the more recent Old Testament books, written in the genre we now call "Apocalyptic," meaning "unveiling" or "revelation," the most famous other example of which is the last book of the New Testament, the "Apocalypse" or "Revelation" of John. Put simply, it's a particular subgenre of prophetic writing which takes present-day happenings and takes them of symbols revealing the end of the world, and while it doesn't have its own section at Waterstones these days, it was very much in vogue back then. Whenever Jesus talks about the end of the age, the wars and famines and earthquakes and the destruction of this world order, he is drawing on that Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, and we have to set aside our modern, literalistic worldview to see what he means. We have to read the symbols.
The writer of this bit of Daniel predicts a war between the angels and the devils, with the heavenly hosts being championed by the Archangel Michael. This is the setting he envisages for the Resurrection, when, he says, "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Now bear in mind that not all Jewish sects believed in the Resurrection, or in any kind of afterlife or judgment at all; and chief among these were the upper-class Saduccees, who were in complete control of the Temple. Jesus clearly did believe in the Resurrection, so you can see why he was prophesying the end of Temple Judaism and locating himself in the Apocalyptic narrative we heard from Daniel.
Belief in what happens after death was controversial in Jesus' day, and has remained so ever since. I can only assume that this passage of Daniel, about some waking to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt, is what inspired those famous lines of William Blake some 1700 years later:
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Blake echoes the ideas of John Calvin, influential in his time, that what happens to us at the end of time is fixed by God from the beginning of time. You're made either for heaven or for hell. But that determinism, the idea that we have no free control of our destiny, is not there in Daniel, is not taught by Jesus, and was firmly repudiated by the Church of England, as we find in today's Collect, penned by the High Church Bishop John Cosin in the seventeenth century. We use it just before Advent because of its apocalyptic themes: Jesus, we prayed, "was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil," so that "when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him." Our ultimate end is to be like Christ, an echo of John's First Letter: "We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Divinisation, apotheosis, becoming like God: that is what heaven is.
But the important bit of the Collect is how we get there. We prayed in that Collect, grant that we "may purify ourselves even as he is pure." Purify ourselves! The very opposite of Calvin and his notion that we are what we are, and there's nothing we can do about it. The Church teaches that no one is born to endless night. God has given us the freedom to purify ourselves.
He has also given us the means: the means of grace, and the hope of glory. And it is the Cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice by which the veil of the Temple is torn away and we see God face-to-face, as absolute, self-giving love. It is the sacrifice in which we can take part if we tear away the veil of a prosaic worldview that trusts only in stone-hard facts, training ourselves to see truth in the spaces between words, in the poetry of apocalypse; to see through the cracks of the world in all its horror those glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven shining; to see the Body and Blood of Christ through bread and wine: 
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.


- More Blake. So come now to the Altar, take infinity in the palm of your hand, eat the Bread of Angels, purify yourself, be a Living Stone in that Temple which can never be destroyed.

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