The destruction of the Temple at the hands of Babylon was a crisis for Israel. The Temple was the very footstool of God on earth. It was the space where sacrifice was offered, where the Law was contemplated and kept.
Without the Temple, where would God be adored? Where would the memory of God’s wondrous deeds be kept?
2 Chronicles reflects on the moment of the Temple’s destruction and later restoration. The destruction of the Temple is described as a consequence of Judah’s idolatry. Practicing the power politics of other nations, the lower kingdom of Judah was willing to pollute the Temple of the one, holy God to enter into covenants with other nations.
They failed to keep the Sabbath in the name of economic growth. Thus, the Temple will lie in waste until Israel learns to keep the Sabbath once more.
Psalm 137 is a bitter lament to God that Judah offered while in exile. Ripped from their land, their temple destroyed, their captors mock them: “‘Sing for us the songs of Zion!’” (Ps 137:3).
Such a song referred to one of the hymns of praise sung during Temple worship. But the Temple is no more, and therefore there is no more song to sing. Judah’s concern is that without a Temple the wondrous deeds of God will be forgotten. Yet, those who are in exile learn to keep the Sabbath again, not through the glorious presence of Temple worship but in their longing for God.
Judah was in captivity for 70 years until King Cyrus conquered Babylon. Rather than continue to subjugate the kingdom of Judah, King Cyrus had a policy to let his conquered nations worship their God. The Temple would be rebuilt, never as glorious as the first. Yet, the kingdom of Judah, all of Israel and the nations of the world would have a place to come and adore the living God.
On the Third Sunday of Lent, we heard the promise that Jesus’ crucified and risen body would become the new Temple. We must keep this in mind in his encounter with Nicodemus this Sunday. Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night, shrouded in darkness. Once more, Jesus speaks of his own death and resurrection: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:14).
Here, Our Lord references a moment in the Book of Exodus where God punishes Israel with poisonous snakes. Israel is healed when Moses lifts up a staff in the desert, a staff that becomes a serpent healing Israel of the snakes’ poison. Christ’s crucifixion is this new act of healing. He is lifted up for all the nations to see, to discover the total love of God for humanity.
He is the light that shines into the darkness that conquers it through the glory of self-emptying love. It is the crucified and risen Lord who has come to finally conquer the darkness of Babylon as the new Temple.
Too often, it seems our common life as Catholics forgets this sense of urgency. The Church is not just a place for the well-to-do to gather and raise their kids in decency. It is the space where the Temple of Christ’s body and blood is available to conquer the darkness of sin and death.
We should come to Mass not in apathy or in darkness. We should stream toward the new Temple of Christ’s body, aware of the healing available for all. It’s time for Babylon’s final conquering.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.