Zeal for the house of God
Lenten reflection at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town,
15 March 2009
As a worshipper at St George’s Cathedral you are privileged. Here is a zeal for God. I am not a Sunday worshipper here as I belong to another church – ELCSA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Southern Africa – but I can see it in the week. Before 7h00 a.m. I regularly see people entering the doors of this church, either for the 7h15 Eucharist or for own prayers.
It appears to me that 95% of the church buildings in Cape Town are locked buildings as soon as there is no service or other special activity on. How does that affect the zeal for the house of God?
In these Lenten reflections I want to do three things: first give one or two thoughts to the Gospel of today, John 2.13 – 22, and then secondly talk about the liturgy, especially the Holy Eucharist and thirdly about the liturgy as a vehicle towards a new cosmology (worldview, universe).
While Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple just before his passion, John places the same story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
It is a striking story and no doubt a few stereotypes have developed from it; for example the following two: it is probably the only recorded incident where Jesus uses physical violence against others and things of others; secondly, Jesus puts a stop to commerce and trade and money transactions in the temple to make his point: this is to be a house of prayer not of trade and commerce.
While these two view points seem to be most accurate, there is another aspect that might be of even greater importance.
After having driven out the various business people, Jesus was recorded as saying (and we take the quote from Mark 11.17 [Isaiah 56.7]):
“Is it not written, ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations!? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
The gentiles had their own court and could not enter the temple beyond that court. Now it is as if Jesus wants to say that the temple has become a restricted place for Jews only. The fact that the temple had become ‘a den of robbers’, did not only refer to those doing business instead of being engaged in worship. It could equally much refer to those who in the name of religion wanted to have their own preserve thereby committing injustice. Jesus’ challenge of the religious system of the day not least the temple worship would eventually provoke the wrath of the various religious leaders; this was all predictable.
The disciples of Jesus remembered at this occasion a word of Scripture that reflected his sentiments: “I am eaten up by the zeal for your house”. This is a quote from Psalm 69.9; later in the same psalm the psalmist says (v 30 – 31): “I will praise God’s name in song, I will extol him by thanksgiving for this will please Yahweh more than an ox, than a bullock horned and hoofed.”
It is as if Jesus is saying: in your temple sacrifice you require oxen and sheep. This will all come to an end. I am going to be the ultimate sacrifice, making all other such sacrifices superfluous.
It is as if Jesus, through his action and his word, is bringing suffering on himself.
John’s Gospel talks repeatedly about signs. Jesus did signs, miracles, but ultimately he was a sign himself. Was he a sign that contained that which it signified or not? At his crucifixion the chief priests, scribes and elders mocked Jesus with the taunt: ‘he is king of Israel let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him.’ Here Jesus is a loser. He was a sign without content, like a flag flying for a flailing nation; the proud flag does not say anything of the state of the nation.
Likewise, Jesus’ claim to kingship was to the onlookers a claim without content. However, at the temple, according to today’s Gospel, Jesus was asked with what authority he did what he did. What sign can you show us? His sign was this: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. Much later the disciples would remember and understand what he said that day.
This is typical for John and his Gospel: he begins with the end and reverses into the present. Now Jesus becomes the sign that signifies what it contains. ‘Destroy this temple’ etc was about himself. The more technical expression ‘three days’ reminds us that Jesus’ mission emanated in his resurrection. Typical for John’s Gospel. It cannot talk about suffering and death without having the resurrection in mind.
Jesus was the sign of God in this world. His public ministry, his suffering, death and resurrection complete the circle. Jesus is not just a sign pointing somewhere else, like a proud flag flying for I don’t know what… He becomes a full sign, with God present in him in his full humanity.
John helps us to be reminded of this great fact in the midst of Lent.
Zeal for God’s liturgy and the world
Our worship of God, which is a liturgical act, has this as a presupposition: the temple that was destroyed and rebuilt in three days, that is Jesus Christ, our Lord. The liturgy, which is the encounter between us and God, is where this drama is actualised.
It is the liturgy that forms the central stage: the Eucharist. Christian Eucharistic liturgy has never had the ambition to establish temples in the first place. Central stage was from the beginning the temple as the body of Christ, i.e. the people coming together as an assembly in his name. As an afterthought buildings that took into consideration this Christian celebration came into being.
In this brief reflection we will concentrate on this Eucharistic liturgy. The Eucharist is a central sacrament of the church giving sustenance to her people. together with the Word, read and proclaimed, the Eucharist remains the most obvious expression of Christian faith.
What many Christians never realised or thought of is the independence of this Eucharistic celebration, also in relation to the Word of God. We know that Christ instituted the Eucharistic prayer his last evening before the crucifixion. Ever since that night we have an unbroken chain of celebrations of this Eucharist to the present day; and it has its own history long before the Bible.
We could not enough stress the power that is inherent in this tradition. Even today it should be marked by intense simplicity: Jesus said, this is my body, given for you, this is my blood, shed for you. And it was a meal consisting of bread (a loaf of bread) and wine.
It is not that this tradition should be spelled out over against the Bible, on the contrary: when there finally is a New Testament Canon in existence more than 100 years later, the tradition of the Eucharist is strongly affirmed (Matthew, Mark, Luke, 1 Cor. 11) or taken for granted (John).
The second surprising thing seems to be the overwhelming power in Jesus’ words of institution as interpretive tools. The surprise being that few, even among sacramentally inclined Christians, seem to be aware of the decisive influence of these words.
What he says is of course in line with what he answered the Jews after having cleansed the temple; for you given, for you shed, this is a language of very clear interpretation. Jesus says with these few words that what would take place the following day, i.e. the crucifixion, was to be his offering, his sacrifice, God’s action of love into this world, for the sake of this world and its humanity.
To our surprise it stand out as very clear that it is Jesus’ words at the last Supper that have made us see the crucifixion is this sacrificial and redeeming light, not the other way round.
Liturgical world making or cosmology
With the literal meaning of ‘teaching or doctrine of the world, cosmos’ cosmology could be understood in at least the following three ways.
The discipline of astrophysics, i.e. the whole perceivable universe, ‘die heelal’ and its constituent parts on macro level and on micro level, the totality of astronomy and nuclear science.
A more metaphysical or transcended view of cosmology as the inquiry about the social and personal sense of an ordered world, its significance, its consequences. One could for example ask about the cosmology of any given culture, and culture would normally imply some kind of world view.
We then also have what is called ‘the new cosmology’. Due to the dire need of addressing our ecological concerns, cosmology is now more and more taken to mean just concern for cosmos, the world, i.e. the earth only without astrophysics.
Here we will reflect on the second meaning of cosmology and see it in relation to the Eucharistic liturgy.
I have come to a point here where exemplifications may be more meaningful than theoretical talk. Is there at all a relationship between the liturgical encounter with God and cosmology? Yes, indeed there is a connection and let me start on a personal level. I can remember certain Sundays, at least in the upper teens and so on, that the liturgical service I had been part of created a new sense of the world around me. It was as if the world was recreated. New hopes and meanings leapt forward that I previously had not been aware of.
It could also be quite physical. The sun and the wide open landscape in front of me had a new splendour. Having moved into the city, the same thing happened to me there. The liturgical worship helped me to see the city in a new light, not just as an ugly place, but as a place for community, for connections, friendships, not isolations. But were not these mere feelings and in the end illusions?
I don’t think so, but we have to be careful. As we will see just now, the church does not have her own cosmology or world view that could be rolled out for all to see, Christian or not; not at all. A sense of realism is needed, and the best way of achieving that maybe is to mention a few anomalies when it comes to church/liturgy and cosmology.
Most churches under apartheid did not only stay passive in face of segregation legislation. It was much worse than that. The liturgical worship through the constituent members, active in the church, helped create and sustain a cosmology that seemed to keep us apart for ever.
A state church like the Church of Sweden, until the end of 1999, certainly developed a cosmology that to a large extent was a painful reminder of a national and ethnic captivity. The worst part was perhaps the perception that you could be a part of the church without being part of its liturgical worship. The church had become petrified as a permanent national project.
One may also recall the present Russian Orthodox Church that suffered grievously during the communist regime but now is resurrected to a new lease of life. The only thing is that this resurrection has come out as quite reactionary. For example, great efforts are made to show that the Emperor and his family, who were brutally murdered during the beginning of the 20th century by the communists, were very saintly Christians.
The church is today part of sustaining a cosmology where Russia is the great Christian nation, unique in the world.
One could say similar things about the Anglican Church, the British Empire, South Africa, the Second Anglo-Boer War and Lord Milner.
When we speak about the Christian church, her Eucharistic liturgy, etc., we have to be quite humble. The church should never fall in line with a specific nation, ethnic group or ideology. The church in her Eucharistic celebration should be a sign that is gainsaid, contradicted. The church would never be able to create a fully fledged cosmology.
Our own liturgies may speak of “a deep-going modesty, a critique of our own claims to coherent meaning and a constant conversion to hope in God’s meaning” (Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Ground. A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, p. 16).
“The texts of prayer frequently express, in their biblical or Cranmerian parallels and repetitions, a kind of stammering before God, ‘the overall casting of liturgy as the hope that there might be a liturgy’” (ibidem).
With the Lord’s Prayer as a central prayer and with the Eucharistic meal we may make “a modest down payment on God’s promise, on God’s conception of the world” (ibidem).
At best the liturgy could “function as contradictory parables to all of our consequent narratives, including the current narratives of consumer happiness…” (ibid., p. 16f.). One should realise that the shopping malls today are a complete concept, a kind of cosmology, a world that provides meaning.
Liturgical cosmology should get inspiration from the Gospel parables. They are often characterized by ‘reversal’ and ‘surprising grace’. In many parables there is a kind of reversal as a surprise: the lost sheep, the mustard seed, the prodigal son, etc. And a great deal of surprising grace is there.
“So we will see, the classic actions and words of the Christian assemblies can be seen to set out reversals and subversions to many of the coherent accounts we may use to hold our world together, to construct our cosmologies” (ibid. p. 17f).
As the liturgical action always is centred around the self sacrifice of Christ it is no wonder that it produces signs to the world that are gainsaid.
Christ died for the outsider, the lonely, the poor, the stranger. At best liturgical worship will turn many things upside down but also create cosmological visions and at least potential realities.
Eucharistic liturgy will always come back to the oneness of Christ and his body which is the church. And this oneness must be seen as a full sign to the one world. Jesus gave his life, not for the church, but for the world (John 3.16) and what the church must envisage, not violently but as a possibility, is an inclusive world, the one world as the heart beat of the broader creation and the universe. That is a cosmology that we never will be able to hold in our hands but rests in God’s hand.
It is ultimately a cosmology with Kingdom of God values.
Gloria Patri etc…