1 Kings 8.22-30 Matthew 21.12-16
Two stories from scripture today – one a story of King Solomon offering a prayer of praise to God as he marks the opening of the temple which he built to God’s glory in Jerusalem. Another story, where Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers in the temple and laments the fact that the stewards of the temple appear to have lost their way: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers’.
Of course, today that same temple in Jerusalem is in ruins. The walls of the temple built by Herod the Great remain but the site of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, has been replaced by the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine. The temple was effectively destroyed in the year 70AD, burnt to the ground by the Roman General, Titus, as he sought, along with his father Vespasian, to put down the First Jewish Revolt which raged from the years 66 to 73. These events would have been fresh in the mind of Matthew the Evangelist when he wrote his gospel.
Jerusalem had been besieged for a number of years. The city effectively in lockdown. The Jewish revolt had begun in the light of a succession of provocations by Roman imperial power. The actions of these insurrectionists, these rebels, were described by the Jewish historian Josephus, a sort of Quisling character, who swapped sides at the height of the revolt and sought to provide an apology for Roman imperial power while justifying his own actions, in his account of the Jewish War. He often referred to these rebels as lestai, a word which refers to a certain lawlessness, rebels, thieves, pirates. It’s the word that we find here in the gospel reading when Jesus complains that the temple in Jerusalem had been turned into a den of robbers. And we know that the rebels were held up in the temple precincts in Jerusalem as the city was besieged.
The temple was destroyed not because Roman generals were ardent loyalists of the National Secular Society, but because the temple was the site of opposition, a symbol of the Jewish revolt. Coins were issued by the temple treasury, which spoke of the redemption of Zion and the freedom of the people of Israel. To destroy the temple was to crush the hopes and aspirations of the people. It spoke of their identity as a people. Its destruction was hailed as a catastrophe.
If you go to Rome, you can still see, amidst the archaeological remains of the Roman Forum, a great triumphal arch depicting the spoils of the temple, gold and silver vessels, being processed through the streets of Rome. You see Titus with his soldiers marching through the streets, with the Jewish rebels in chains.
Of course, this did not mark the end for the people of Israel. From the ashes of the destruction of the temple emerged rabbinic Judaism, as well as a small group of Messianic Jews who had continued to worship in the temple through the first century. In Antioch, they were called Christianoi, because they followed Jesus, a prophet who had been put to death by that same Roman imperial power, and they worshipped him as the Messiah or Christ. Jesus had prophesied about the destruction of the temple, and spoke of the temple of his own body. These Christians began to meet and gather initially in secret and then in large houses. Gradually, the community grew so that soon it was using the major places of meeting in cities across the Roman Empire, the basilicas and places of assembly, buildings which in many ways resembled this one.
Today, we celebrate our Dedication Festival at St Mary’s. It’s a moment in the year when we give thanks for this beautiful building and for everything it means to us. In recent months, of course, we have not been able to worship in this building. When the Archbishops instructed parishes to close in March (although they later admitted that they could only advise and issue guidance), people reacted in very different ways. Some accepted that this was the most sensible course of action, even though the experience of not being able to gather in this place provoked a profound sense of loss, even grief. For others, the closure of the church provoked not only a sense of loss and grief, but a sense of anger. The place where people had come for centuries, this ‘serious place on serious earth’, was no longer open or available for people to come to pray, to reflect, to receive the grace and comfort of divine consolation. For them, online worship was no substitute.
I want to invite you to spend a few moments thinking about these different reactions. Why do these buildings matter? What difference do they make? One of the things that I want to argue is that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which I described earlier, has proved to be as formative of the Christian tradition, just as much as in the formation of rabbinic Judaism. One of my colleagues when I taught New Testament Studies used to say that Jews and Christians in the first century ‘used the temple to think with’. The imagery and architecture of the temple used all sorts of images of creation. Its architecture mapped out the created world. It expressed the way in which their world was ordered. And you can see the effect of all this in the New Testament. The temple dominates the landscape at every turn. It shapes their imagination – and ours.
The medieval historian, Mary Carruthers, has written extensively about the way in which people in the Middle Ages often used buildings as artificial memory devices. Of course, nowadays we just use Google, but when people had to cultivate and train their memory, they used a number of interesting techniques. We are also perhaps familiar with the idea of ‘a memory palace’ where you learn to remember things by setting them out within a familiar building, but Carruthers also examines the way in which forms of meditation in the medieval world, particularly meditation on the architectural patterns of the temple, churches, fed the imagination. They were integral to the craft of thought. And she argues that the imagination was, for them and for us, absolutely fundamental to human creativity, our capacity to think.
I think Carruthers reminds us of something of great importance here. Think back to Easter Day, with the Archbishop of Canterbury sitting at his kitchen table, and Pope Francis standing in an empty St Peter’s Square. The Archbishop had perhaps lost sight of the fact that the building we sit in Sunday by Sunday feeds our imagination. His kitchen did not provide the visual apparatus which feeds our imagination. But when we come here, wherever we look, whether it is a biblical story portrayed in the stained glass, or Vouet’s wonderful portrait of the Madonna and Child above the High Altar, Cranmer’s Pillar, Newman’s pulpit, Laud’s porch, or the German Crucifix which stands in the sanctuary, each of these images feeds our imagination.
(As an aside, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that in our podcasts and videocasts in the last six months, we have deliberately sought to reproduce the sounds and music of this building, as well as scenes of its interior).
We use this building to think with. And of course this building tells a complex story, sometimes a contested story. But at every turn, it provides prompts and cues, which enable us to inhabit afresh the Christian story, which challenge us with the truth of the gospel. The images and iconography of this building feed our imagination. They prompt us to meditate. They provoke us to pray. And when we face real and profound difficulty. When we feel overwhelmed. When our world seems to be falling apart, we need to draw on the resources which we discover here. Because in the face of these extraordinary times, it takes imagination to hope, to believe, to love.
These buildings matter. In an increasingly secular world, they are a visible reminder of the glory of God. They are a form of witness – ‘an argument made manifest’ as the great Anglican novelist Rose Macaulay would say. One of the things that has been heartening in recent months is to listen to feedback to our online worship from people across the globe, in Australia, France, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, South America, the United States and Canada. Many of these people have visited Oxford, some to study, some just passing through. But somehow this glorious space has gained some hold on their imagination. Its memory and recollection brings comfort and consolation, perhaps because on entering this building they have found themselves standing, not in a den of robbers, but in a house of prayer. This is what compels us to gather here, even in these strangest of times, to listen to the scriptures, to be nourished by the presence of Christ himself, in bread and wine, these tangible physical signs of the body and blood of Christ. As we gather here, we discover that this is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.