How We Approach the Temple

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark, Jesus enters the temple area in Jerusalem and drives out “those selling and buying there.” Angrily, he overturns tables of money changers and those selling animals for sacrifice, crying out to them, “Is it not written: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples? But you have made it a den of thieves.”

What did Jesus see? Was it the main activity of the temple market area that offended Jesus and how were the people were engaging in that activity? When I envision the scene Jesus saw, I imagine the buying and selling and money changing. But I also imagine that what Jesus saw was people cheating each other or haggling excessively over prices. People socializing and carrying on other business. People off in corners gambling, eating, drinking, and probably engaging in a lot of other activities that don’t seem very temple-like. What Jesus saw were people who had lost their focus, forgot the purpose for which they were there, a people whose focus ceased to be on God. I think that is what Jesus is reacting to when he laments what they have done to the temple, his father’s house.

But there is more than that going on. We also know that when Jesus speaks of the temple, he is not just concerned with the physical building. Part of the Gospel message is that there is a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the physical temple as God’s dwelling. Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved.

This passage invites us to think about how we approach the temple that is Jesus. Do approach Jesus so wrapped up in the world, so completely distracted by our worldly affairs – with what we are buying or selling or getting or not getting, that we cannot hear Him when He speaks to us? Do we approach with a grudge against our brother or our sister, so that our focus is on our own wounds and the injury done to us by another, unable to truly believe in the love our God has for us? Or do we approach with hearts full of love and joy to be in God’s presence?


Social and Individual Prayer

I started to title this post “Social vs. Individual Prayer,” but realized that would suggest exactly the opposite of the point I want to convey.

One of the reasons it is so important to me to find a parish that I feel comfortable in – by which I mean one where I feel nourished by the liturgy (which, for me, includes a good homily) and one which has a commitment to social justice (which means more than just sponsoring and encouraging charitable giving) is that I think there is great value in communal worship. Praying with others can be a very powerful experience and it means something to me to be part of a faith community.

Nonetheless, it is important not to accident or design to suggest that social or communal prayer diminishes the importance of, or the need for, individual prayer.

I read an excerpt from Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs that speaks to this issue. He writes

When we learn to enjoy and trust the presence of God, we will naturally turn to that presence in prayer. When the church is no longer teaching the people how to pray, we could almost say it will have lost its reason for existence. Prayer is the ultimate empowerment of the people of God, and that may be why we clerics prefer laws and guilt, though they often disempower us and make us live in insufficiency and doubt. Prayer, however, gives us a sense of abundance and connectedness.

An overemphasis on social prayer (i.e. attendance at services where the clergy happen to be in charge) has left many of our people passive, without a personal prayer life and comfortable with “handed-down religion” instead of first-hand experience. We don’t do God any favors by keeping the people passive and unaware.

Whether or not one agrees with Rohr that it is fear of empowerment of the people that inhibits the church from placing greater emphasis on prayer outside of communal worship settings, my experience is that there is truth to his observation that many Christians lack a personal prayer life, and that many churches make insufficient efforts to teach people how to deepen their direct experience of God, and to encourage them to take some time each day alone with our God. I’m not saying that there are not also many churches that do make such efforts, but more could be done.

Communal Worship

Since recently purchasing a copy of Shane Claiborne, et. al, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, I’ve been thinking about the value of communal worship. And this is a period of more-than-usual opportunities for such worship.

I have heard many people say something on the order of “I don’t need to go to Mass. I can pray to God on my own.” And, of course, that is true. We can pray to God everywhere and anywhere and solitary contemplative prayer is an important part of our communication with God.

Nonetheless, I know that for me, communal worship is important. I would miss something that matters to me if I didn’t attend Mass, Taize services and other rituals and forms of worship where a faith community comes together. I take solitary time with God every day (something I need and love) and I’m conscious of the presence of God in my interactions with friends and family and at other times, but still, there is something significant to me in communal worship.

In cleaning out some files, I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen that spoke to the value of communal worship, but in a way that articulated the value in a way I hadn’t thought of, but that seems to me vitally important. In The Road to Peace Nouwen writes

Worship is coming together as a community of God to claim the presence of Christ. So we listen to the readings, we break the bread, we share the cup, we sing songs. They are all gestures in which we remind each other that no matter what we are experiencing – whether it is joy or pain or suffering – God is there.

It is not just about what we get ourselves from communal worship, it is about what we give each other – the reminders, when reminders are needed, that God is here…and that we are here (as Christ) for each other.

Come, Just as You Are

One of the songs our teen choir sings at 6:00p.m. Sunday Mass is titled, Come Now is the Time to Worship. The refrain goes

Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Come, just as you are to worship.
Come, just as you are before your God. Come.

“Come just as you are” is the line that always strikes me when we sing this song. It is such a welcoming line.

It is a line I’ve used when someone who is coming to my home asks how they should dress for the occasion or whether they should bring something. No, I say, come, just as you are.

It is a line I’ve used when someone says, maybe we shouldn’t get together, I’m not feeling so social or I’m not really at the top of my game. No, come anyway, I say, come, just as you are.

When I say those words, what I’m trying to convey to the other person is: your being here is enough for me. I’m just happy to see you, to spend time with you. It is you I care about. The rest of it doesn’t really matter.

And so it is with God, except even more so. God invites us to come to spend time together. We don’t need to worry about what we wear and we don’t need to be at the top of our game. God says: I just want to be with you. Come, spend some time with me. Come, just as you are.

Come, just as you are. That’s God’s invitation, not just on Sundays, but an open invitation for any day and any time. What we do with the invitation is up to us.

It’s All About You, Jesus

Since Sunday evening, I keep coming back to the lyrics of one of the songs sung by our teen choir during Mass this week. The song is titled, The Heart of Worship and the refrain from the song goes:

I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and
it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.
I’m sorry Lord, for the things I’ve made it,
when its’ all about You, all about You, Jesus.

The truth is that we often “make it” all about all sorts of other things. Any number of things become our center of focus, preoccupying us, keeping us from putting Jesus front and center. Our jobs, our friends, our anxieties, our ambitions, etc., etc. and so forth.

But, no matter how much we push Him aside, Jesus waits patiently for us to “come[] back to the heart of worship.” He stands in the corner in which we’ve pushed him waiting for us to recognize that we’ve mistakenly put other things in His place.

As I listened to the teens sing the words to the song Sunday evening, I was overwhelmed by the reality of Jesus’ patience and the lack of recrimination What I saw was Jesus happily embracing us, no matter how long it takes us to come back. No matter how long it takes, He’s happy to have us back.