A Temple is a place where the Divine presence resides. For the Jewish people, the Temple was a physical place where the Ark of the Covenant was stored within “The Holy of Holies.” For Catholic Christians, to understand the Temple we need to gather the whole sweep of Jewish History into the historical life of Christ through the birth and growth of His Church, if we are to make sense of 1 Corinthians 6:19:
Do you not know that your body is a temple 8 of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
When Moses led the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, through 40 years in the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant was created upon Divine command. This was a box designed with precise measurements. A cloud covered the Ark as the Jewish people journeyed. In temperate zones a cloud tends to symbolize bad fortune, but for a desert people, struggling under blazing sun, a cloud was indeed a blessing.
What was in the Ark? The two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which Moses received on Mount Sinai. These commandments show God’s people how to fulfill their side of the Covenant; they are God’s people by virtue of their bloodline, outward signs of the covenant (circumcision), by their shared history, and by the principles that guide their daily lives and societal bonds.
What else was in the Ark? Manna, we’re told – the daily bread God provided on the dew each morning to sustain the Israelites in their 40-year desert wanderings. Also, Aaron’s rod was placed inside the Ark, a potent symbol of leadership into the Promised Land.
The Ark was portable, and went with the Israelites in battle and on retreat from fierce enemies. When Joshua crushed Jericho, by walking seven times around the city, and then sounding trumpets, the Ark led the procession. Homes where the Ark was protected received special blessings. A small subset of Levites were allowed to go before the Ark, where God’s special presence was reserved. The wrong folks died if they got too close or touched the Ark.
The Ark was brought to Jerusalem when King David designated this holy city as his capital in 866 BC. David was denied the privilege, because too much blood had stained his hands. David’s son, King Solomon, built the first Temple in Jerusalem in 825 BC. In the midst of the Temple, a sanctuary room called “The Holy of Holies” was prepared, in which the Ark was placed. When the priests placed the Ark in the Holy of Holies, a cloud of witnesses signaled God’s presence. Solomon’s Temple stood for 400 years.
The Babylonians burned the temple to the ground in 423 BC. What happened to the Ark remains unknown. Some say tunnels were built by Solomon to enable safe hiding in case of war. After a series of conquerors, the Temple was rebuilt in 352 BC, during the reign of the Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great. The new “Holy of Holies” was an empty chamber, though filled with God’s presence. The Temple was the center of sacrifice, daily offerings to God to repent of the sins of the Jewish people. Each family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice for the sins of their family once a year at the Passover. Today, in synagogues around the world, a tabernacle reserves scrolls of the Torah, which are pulled out for readings during the service.
During Herod’s rule the Temple was expanded, beginning in 20 BC. This is where Mary was presented at the Temple, and where the young Mary was selected among the holy maidens, under age 12, to sew the veil of the Temple. A two-layered veil hid the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest entered once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
This was the Temple of the Holy Family’s visited at the annual Passover pilgrimage, where they “found” Jesus at age 12, after he was “lost” for three days. The veil was torn in two at the Crucifixion, signaling God’s presence in our midst. Nothing veils God’s presence to His Creation once the Son is born among His people. And His blood sacrifice is sufficient to forgive the sins of the world.
After another 400 years, that second Temple, built by Cyrus, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD in the mist of The Great Revolt. Jesus foretold the destruction of the temple 42 years earlier, when he died on the Cross in 28 AD. Efforts to rebuild a physical temple in Jerusalem have failed.
Jesus and the Temple
Jesus spoke with authority in the Temple, even at a young age. He turned over the tables of the money-changers, decrying the corruption of His Father’s house. Jesus and his Disciples were in Jerusalem, near the Temple, when they rented a room to celebrate the Passover, which became the Last Supper. The Passover was completed when Jesus was on the Cross.
Jesus presented, at the Last Supper (and First Eucharist) His Body and Blood in the blessing he shared with the 12, and which we participate in during Mass. Jesus’ presence remains in the Tabernacle in each Catholic Church, where His Body is reserved in the Eucharist. A candle shines perpetually to remind us of His Presence.
We are His Temple
When we partake of His Body and Blood, Jesus dwells within us. We carry His Presence everywhere we go, just like the Israelites of old carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them.
Just as the tiniest crumb of the Eucharist or the slightest drop of the Sacred Blood contains the wholeness of Jesus, so we, though small and broken, house Jesus and transport Him throughout the world. Indeed we “are not our own.”