Purify the Temple, Come to the Feast

in CanaJohn 2 tells us that the public ministry of Jesus begins in Cana, in this mysterious but lovely scene:

"On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2.1-10)

By the end of this scene, we may be thinking: thus Jesus has come to help us to celebrate life and human love. Cana is a symbol of the eternal feast to which we are called. Jesus has come that we might love one another and live in community, celebrating the goods of body and soul: “I have come that you may have life, and life to the full.” (10.10) Yes, let there be an abundance of food and wine and love! Who needs the rest of the Gospel, if the feast of love has begun in Cana?

But John must think otherwise, since immediately after Cana he offers a surprisingly, shockingly different next scene, our Gospel for this Third Sunday in Lent:

"In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”(Psalm 69) (2.14-17)

Religion and business had become mixed up, in a noisy confusion. It was the time of Passover, and large crowds were coming to Jerusalem. Coins needed to be changed, so that the proper ones could be used in the temple. Larger and smaller animals were being sold, for richer and poorer sacrificial offerings. Much of this was the ordinary business of the temple, but one can presume that some people were making a great deal of money. As a result, no one who enters God’s house can pray there. Jesus’ complaint was simple: you are making a house of prayer into a marketplace — get out! Here too is a message for Lent: unclutter our lives, make a space within us that is not controlled by the needs and business of everyday life, a space in which to pray. If we are busy all the time, we cannot live and breathe and love.

cleansing the templeThis powerful scene is told in all four Gospels. Mark, Matthew, and Luke put this story near the end of their Gospels, as the conflict between Jesus and the authorities reaches its terrible climax. So why does John put it near the start of his Gospel and right after Cana? John gives a few clues that show us what he thinks this is really all about.

First, in purifying the Temple Jesus is showing us by a sign something of his own death and rising:

"Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. (2.19-21)

The temple is purified - and then destroyed and raised - as a symbol for what happens to Jesus, how God takes him apart and puts him together again, dying and rising. For us too, our place at the wedding feast begins with external purification, but that is only a sign for the internal purification, God clearing space within us, taking us apart and putting us together again. Purification happens first, and then everything else can follow. We just have to let Lent happen to us.

And then we have another clue: Jesus is skeptical about those who follow him merely because they have seen his signs:

"Now while Jesus was still in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and had faith in his name. But Jesus would not put his faith in them, for he knew them all. He did not need any testimony about humankind, for he knew what was in each human being. (2.23-25)

Merely showing up in Cana is not enough. Jesus is not fooled by the enthusiasm of people — “humans” (anthropoi) – for water made into wine, loaves multiplied, the sick healed and the dead raised. We see signs and are impressed, but Jesus wants not merely to do easy things like changing water into wine or multiplying loaves, but rather hard things, like changing my heart and yours. He knows us, how hard it is to change us deep inside.

The rest of the Gospel is, it seems, all about Jesus’ campaign to save the world, one person at a time. Lent 2021 is part of the same campaign: Jesus wants to make us new people, ready to celebrate the wedding feast, God’s love among us. This is perhaps why there is yet another abrupt transition. What follows upon the purification of the Temple? Nothing but the night visit of Nicodemus, a human being who wants to know Jesus:

"Now there was a human being (anthropos) among the Pharisees named Nicodemus. He was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with you.” (3.1-2)

Nicodemus is a good man who in secrecy wants to learn from Jesus. But on this night he does not understand Jesus’ mysterious words about being “born again, born from above” (3.3), and so the scene ends inconclusively, nothing resolved. Perhaps Nicodemus comes many times to see Jesus, or not. But a great change is taking place: slowly he becomes the brave Pharisee who speaks out on behalf of Jesus (c 7), and then the very brave person who improbably risks everything at the darkest moment, when Jesus has died on the cross, by publicly bringing fragrant spices to prepare the body of Jesus for burial (c 19). He has finally chosen sides.

NicodemusAfter purifying the temple and mystifying Nicodemus, Jesus goes on, engaging one person at a time: the woman at the well (c 4), the blind man (c 9), Lazarus (c 11), and amid the crowds enthralled by the multiplication of loaves in John 6, the remaining few who, like Peter, do not walk away from Jesus. And then there is Mary Magdalene at the tomb (c 20), awakened fully when Jesus simply calls her by name, “Mary.” (It takes great purity of heart to be as simple as Mary.)

Lent is like this too: it is not really about us improving and purifying ourselves, but rather about the Jesus who seeks you and me out in 2021, to clean the Temple once agan, freeing our hearts of clutter and noise, rebuilding us as people ready for the eternal Cana, where the wine of human and divine love never runs dry. John 2, heard on this Third Sunday of Lent, is an invitation to the fullness of life — but by a path that begins in purification, the cleansing of the temples of our hearts and minds, that we might, like Nicodemus, be born again. Let us just say Yes.

(You can find an earlier version of this homily in the Mass posted for this weekend, here.)

Note: Last year, the Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, was the first weekend of the parish closures. I posted my first written homily that weekend, on the woman at the well (John 4). Today’s homily is the 52nd in the series. As we reopen the parish and return to the Eucharist together, the time is coming to end this series, and so it will end, some time during the Easter season.