Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
In various religious traditions, temples and shrines are places for encountering the divine. When a deity manifests itself in a particular place, the human recipient of the theophany tends to set the place apart and turn it into a shrine. The transition from the profane to the sacred realm is often characterised by rituals of purification, use of sacred objects and an array of taboos. For the people of Israel, the Temple was the centre of their religion. It was the place where the poor and the afflicted implored God’s mercy; it was the space where those who had received God’s graces came to offer their thanksgiving sacrifice to God. The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, and later by the Romans, was a religious catastrophe for the people of Israel. With the coming of Christ, however, the importance of the Temple fades into insignificance. In his vision, the seer in the Book of Revelation says, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev 21:22). Christ is the new Temple of God.
Building a House for God….
The first reading recounts David’s intention to build a house for God. David is not happy that, while he and his family dwell in a magnificent house of cedar, the ark of God dwells in a tent. But God reminds David that it is not the latter to build a house for God; rather, it is God to build a house for David: “The Lord also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you.” But God is not talking about a literal house; the discourse progresses from a literal house to a dynasty: David’s dynasty will last forever: “I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.”
Christian tradition has interpreted the above words as a prophecy about Jesus. He is the “house” of God in the world. He is the everlasting Temple. The Gospel reading takes up the theme of the ‘house of David’. Jesus, whom Mary is to conceive, will be of the house of David. What was spoken to David is now said to Mary: “He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Jesus is the tent of God in our midst.
Do we still need temples and shrines?
Though early Jewish Christians continued to worship in the Jerusalem Temple until its destruction by the Romans, they gradually relativised the importance of the Temple as the place of the encounter with God. For them, Jesus, the Lamb of God, became the new Temple, not built by human hands but by God himself (Acts 7:48). For early Christians, any place was a place of worship, because at the centre of worship was Jesus, not the physical space. They prayed in homes, by the river (Acts 16:13) or other places.
However, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it picked up the trappings of other religions and constructed equivalents of temples. Elaborate rituals were put in place to consecrate such buildings. In a way, human beings need some visible sign (sacrament) of God’s presence. Humanly speaking, therefore, our temples (church buildings) are important, for they help us to experience in a more concrete manner, the presence of God. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the physical space is but a sign of the presence of Christ who lives in the poor, the afflicted, the prisoner, the lonely. John Chrysostom’s counsel is apt: “Do you want to honour Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honour him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me.”
As we await the birth of Christ, may we see and honour Jesus in our neighbour.