We’ve all seen it. The distracted parent on the street, trying to juggle shopping with pushing a pram whilst keeping an eye on a toddler who has recently discovered his feet. The toddler runs ahead thoughtless of any danger. Suddenly, the parent sees that the child is about to run onto the road and yells out his name louder than any trumpet. The child freezes, the parent loses the rag, the child wails, not understanding that his parent’s temper is not because of rejection but because of love. Because of love, the parent wants nothing awful to happen to his darling; because of love, the parent wants the child to understand that it must not do certain things because they could cause a catastrophe.
The anger of Jesus in the Temple is likewise because of love. Love for the money-changers and sellers; love for the pilgrims in the Temple for the Passover; love for the Temple authorities that question him. Above all, his anger is out of love for his Father’s house, in other words, out of love for his Father and for all that his house symbolizes.
And what does the Father’s house symbolize? It was Solomon who had built the original Temple to be the dwelling place of the Lord with his chosen people. As he consecrated the Temple, Solomon asked the question, “is it possible that God will one day dwell among men?” Without knowing it, he was prophesying the incarnation of Christ. The body of Jesus, then, is the true Temple, a fact which Jesus himself declares in his words about rebuilding the destroyed temple in three days. The Father’s house is the incarnate Christ. Later in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus will say to his apostles, “in my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Jesus is referring here to his own risen body ascended into heaven. In fact, we can say that heaven is the body of Christ, the holy city, the Jerusalem above that will descend on the last day.
But there’s more. If the Temple symbolizes the body of Jesus, it likewise symbolizes the Eucharist, his sacramental body, and the Church, his mystical body. But since St. Paul tells us that the whole of creation is to be reconciled in and through the body of Christ, then the Temple also symbolizes creation thus reconciled.
So, when Jesus acts angrily at the desecration of the Temple, which is the violation of the first and probably second commandments, at the greed and thievery, which violate the ninth and seventh commandments, and probably at the lying and swindling going on, which violate the eighth commandment (and who knows what else went on?), he is giving people a premonition of what he will himself accomplish in his own body on the Cross. For he bore in his body all our iniquities and infirmities, all our violations of the ten commandments and eight beatitudes and all the rest; he bore our death and by his death he definitively “drove out of the Temple” for ever the contamination of sin. In the scene in the Temple, we see that Christ hates sin. On the Cross, we see that Christ loves the sinner.
But we need to take this further, to the full extent of what the Temple symbolizes. For Jesus continues throughout the centuries to “take a whip to sin” because although he has destroyed sin’s power, we don’t always let Christ’s power win in us. This is true individually but also as a race, indeed, also as Church. Imagine the ferocity of Christ’s strokes of the whip against the abuse of children in the Church; imagine the energy with which he wants to drive out hypocrisy and corruption from it. What muscle would he spare in expelling marital infidelity, pornography and the new idolatries of relativism and sneering indifference to the things of God? And if we were to look at our national and international life, the list of things to drive out that are not worthy of God or man would not be short.
But since charity begins at home, each of us must ask: like the cry of a loving parent scared that a child will walk into harm, what would Jesus want to stop and drive out of my personal life? The money-changers and others in the Temple probably had been doing business for centuries. It had become normal. The religious leaders condoned it and probably got a cut of the takings. Everyone had become numb to desecration and sacrilege, to greed and corruption. And that can happen to each one of us. It’s so easy to explain away our sin, to get used to it, to start saying, “well, that’s just me”, when in fact it is ruining me. Out of appreciation for his love for us, for his death for us, we at least have the responsibility to ask Him, “Lord, help me see what in me impedes me from becoming all You want me to be. Help me to own it, call it by name, and hand it over to the power of your Cross, so that I may be free of it, and once more fully consecrated to You.”
Christ’s anger is at the service of his love, and his love is at our service. We should rejoice that we have such a strong and powerful lover of our humanity and of our personal destiny. We should actually be pleased at his anger and join him in it, work with him to drive out of ourselves at least what desecrates the sanctuary of our souls. There is no surer way to do this than to receive the Sacrament of Confession. No whip awaits you there, since Christ himself took all the strokes of it for you when he was scourged at the pillar. Rather, there awaits you his comforting words to the woman caught in adultery, “does no-one condemn you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” Note: sin no more. What is required is a firm purpose of amendment, a firm resolve not to sin again. One day at a time. One temptation at a time.
For our own spiritual sanity, it’s important to examine our conscience regularly. To ask the question, have I committed mortal sin? That is, have I done anything or harboured an interior desire or attitude which has chased out of me the living presence of the Holy Spirit? How do I know if I’ve done that? There are three things which tell me, and they must all be present together: there must be grave matter, full knowledge or awareness of what I am doing and full freedom in doing it. Hopefully, I will always be able to say no, I have not committed a mortal sin. But if it is yes, I have done so, then the sacrament of Confession is necessary to receive the forgiveness of Christ. In examining my conscience, I should also ask the question, have I committed any venial sins? In other words, have I deliberately chosen to do something, or retain an inner desire or attitude, which is not worthy of me or of God, but which is not mortal, in the sense explained? For most of us, the answer to that will be yes. These sins do not need the sacrament to be forgiven. A sincere act of contrition before the Lord, and maybe an act of charity as well, is enough to obtain forgiveness. The only thing I would add is that vigilance over venial sins is necessary so that they do not accumulate or deteriorate into mortal sin. That’s why going to confession now and again is good, because it keeps a check on venial sins.
At the end of time, when the Lord returns in glory, sin will be definitively expelled from the Temple of creation. It will also be definitively expelled from each person who has waited for Christ, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Each time we ask the Lord to take away our sins in prayer or in the sacrament, we are preparing ourselves for our own particular judgment at death and for the general judgment at the end of time.
There is no need to be afraid of the anger of the Lord. He is the Holy One who comes to cleanse and purify those he loves, to shout out loudly our name to stop us from running into lasting harm. Something which Christ has taken so seriously must surely prompt us to respond in kind. My dear friends, take seriously the presence of sin in your life so that you can take even more seriously, and wonderfully, the victorious love of the Saviour.