Isn’t this a delicious, made-for-the-movies rampage? In the verses just before Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding—but only after being borderline-rude to his mother: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come”. If in that episode he was standard bearer for cheeky young men, today he is patron saint of the hot headed.
He probably didn’t go all the way in with that whip of cords. The merchants and money changers would have been in the outer precincts of the Temple complex. Herod had built an enormous platform with retaining walls for the Temple, which was surrounded by a broad plaza, divided into zones of access. There was an outer Court of the Gentiles. Jewish women could get closer to the Temple proper. Jewish men could enter the Temple, but not into the court of the Priests. The High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, but only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies was the inner sanctum partitioned off by a great curtain. (The curtain rods of the baldacchino over our altar are a vestige of this.)
In the days of wandering in the desert, the portable temple’s inner sanctum held the Ark of the Covenant, holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which we heard earlier. The first Temple building (Solomon’s Temple) also held the Ark. But the Ark and the tablets disappeared in the turmoil that resulted in the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. When the Temple was rebuilt following the return from exile, there was an inner sanctum as before, but it was left empty. It was believed that God was especially present in the darkness and emptiness of this room.
If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see Herod’s great plaza and the massive stones of the retaining wall. If you have the right connections you can also see the very place that was probably the Holy of Holies before the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD. Standing there you will see around you one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture: the Dome of the Rock (the plot thickens…).
Both Islam and Judaism have been rigorous about the prohibition of images of God, which is an interpretation of the first of the Ten Commandments: “you shall not make for yourself an idol [“graven image” in some translations], whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…for I the Lord am a jealous God…” The Dome of the Rock is covered on the inside with dazzling Arabic calligraphy. The Jewish temple’s inner sanctum may have been decorated in some way, but not with images of God. It was unique in the ancient world for the absence of some kind of image of the temple’s god.
The intuition at the heart of this interpretation of the first commandment, the prohibition of graven images or images of God, is that God cannot be adequately represented visually or, to take it a step further, even comprehended by the mind. And although many Christians use images uninhibitedly, the idea of God as incomprehensible is in our spiritual DNA, as it is for Jews and Muslims. “Now we see through a glass darkly…,” as Paul put it.
Historically, Christians have endeavored to have it both ways. Even though we acknowledge the incomprehensibility of God, we regularly do speak about God in terms we feel we understand. We believe that God has been revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in his teachings as passed down to us by his first followers. We speak of these things unabashedly. We speak because we must.
And yet, alongside this urge to speak of the things of God (as best we can), is the realization that we are indeed limited in our understanding. Human words, images, concepts: none of these can actually grasp the mystery of God.
Some of you may be familiar with the anonymous 14th century text called “The Cloud of Unknowing”. It teaches a way of praying—or, we might say meditating—in a wordless way. The author’s central idea is that God cannot be comprehended by any human words, images or concepts, that when we approach God we come up against, as it were, a “cloud of unknowing”. Words and intellectual concepts cannot penetrate the cloud— only love can do that. In this prayer, “darts of longing love” spring from our hearts to the heart of God, who dwells beyond the cloud of unknowing. (This wordless way of praying is, by the way, an example of what is called “apophatic” prayer—in contrast to “kataphatic” prayer, which uses words, images, concepts.)
The acknowledgment of mystery, the recognition of our uncertainty and the utter transcendence of God, is a key characteristic of monastic and contemplative spirituality. We live and we pray in a paradox. We speak of the things of God because we must; we are silent before the mystery because we must be. And, yet, we speak. The liturgy is an intricate poetic texture of words, images, concepts, sights and sounds and smells and tastes—it’s the best that we can do. We speak, we sing because we must. But liturgy must also convey a sense of mystery, of the unknown, of transcendence, even of uncertainty—or it falls short…
A sense of the incomprehensibility of God, our uncertainty, our “unknowing” before God is part of the take-home package from church. Maybe even a little modesty and humility when speaking of the things of God. Wouldn’t it be nice if religious talk in the political arena were characterized by a spirit of modesty and humility—even reticence? But instead, we hear a lot of bludgeoning of the opposition with religious-sounding certainties that aren’t all that certain.
God has spoken his creation into existence, a universe shot through with uncertainties, but it is precisely through the uncertainties that God draws us to himself. It is in acknowledging our uncertainty, our unknowing, that we find the suppleness to receive new understanding, new truth. A mind already made up can be closed to new information.
So, we might hear the first commandment not just as the ominous threat of a jealous sky God, but as a clue to something larger, something greater: be careful of images of God, don’t get stuck in one place, with one image of God, “graven” or otherwise, because God is so big, there will always be more. The Gospel of John promises that—over time– the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. We can’t be led into fuller truth if we’ve decided we’ve already arrived.
Do our temples need to be cleansed, figuratively speaking? Are the temples of our hearts cluttered with images that are too small for God? Images that are utilitarian? Tribalistic? Jingoistic? Idolatrous? It might be time for some of this old stuff to be swept out of the way—if not with a whip of cords, maybe a feather duster. So that there’s room for something new, something more to do with springtime…
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