Thursday, May 3, 2012

Jesus Is the Temple of God

Solomon's Temple Foreshadowing Christ
Pope Benedict XVI gave us another wonderful message in his Wednesday audience on May 2. In this message, he spoke of Stephen, the first martyr, and focused on Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin given just before he was stoned to death. The Holy Father shows us, through Stephen's speech, that Jesus is the center and focus of all of history. Everything leads up to Jesus, and everything flows from Him. Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, is literally the temple to which all men must go. The temple built by Solomon is but a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ, "who is the new temple, who inaugurates a new worship and who replaces the ancient sacrifices with his self-offering on the Cross", as Pope Benedict tells us in his message.  In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where the priest went to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people.  It was where the Holy of Holies was, the place that God resided.  The Vicar of Christ in this message shows that this was all a prefigurement of Jesus Christ  Christ is now the sacrifice for our sins, he is the temple where we worship.  The religion of the Israelites in the Old Testament prefigured Christianity, but the reality is utterly unlike anything the world has ever known.  Our God, our Creator, has made himself a sacrifice for us and the temple at which we worship.  Worship starts with Him and ends with Him.  Our Salvation starts and ends with Him. Jesus Christ truly is the "Alpha and Omega", the "Beginning and End."
Dear brothers and sisters,
In the most recent catecheses, we have seen how in personal and communal prayer, reading and meditation on Sacred Scripture open us to hear God who speaks to us, and infuse us with light in order that we may understand the present. Today I would like to speak about the witness and prayer of the Church’s first martyr, St. Stephen, one of the seven who were chosen for the service of charity to those in need. At the moment of his martyrdom, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, the fruitful relationship between the Word of God and prayer is again revealed.

"Destroy this temple; in 3 days I will raise it"
Stephen is brought into court before the Sanhedrin, where he is accused of having declared that “Jesus … will destroy this place, [the temple], and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14). During his public life, Jesus had in effect foretold the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Yet, as the Evangelist John notes, “he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (John 2:21-22).

St. Stephen Before the Sanhedrin
Stephen’s address before the tribunal, the longest in the Acts of the Apostles, expands precisely upon this prophecy of Jesus, who is the new temple, who inaugurates a new worship and who replaces the ancient sacrifices with his self-offering on the Cross. Stephen wants to show that the accusation made against him of subverting the law of Moses is unfounded and to illustrate his vision of salvation history, of the covenant between God and man. Thus, he reinterprets the whole biblical narrative, the itinerary contained in Sacred Scripture, in order to show that it leads to the “place” of God’s definitive presence, which is Jesus Christ, particularly His Passion, Death and Resurrection. [Everything leads to Christ and from Christ, the "Beginning and the End."]
Radiant Face of Moses
Stephen also interprets his discipleship of Jesus within this perspective, following him to the point of martyrdom. Meditation on Sacred Scripture thus allows him to understand his mission, his life, his present circumstances. [The Holy Father is showing us the importance of meditating on scripture, for it was through studying and meditating on scripture that Stephen came to understand and accept his mission and martyrdom] In this, he is guided by the light of the Holy Spirit, by his intimate relationship with the Lord, so much so that the members of the Sanhedrin saw that his face “was like that of an angel” (Acts 6:15). This sign of divine assistance recalls the radiant face of Moses as he descended from Mount Sinai after having encountered God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:7-8).

God comes to Moses in the Burning Bush
In his address, Stephen begins with the call of Abraham, a pilgrim to the land indicated by God, which he possessed only as a promise; he then passes on to Joseph, who was sold by his brothers but was assisted and liberated by God, to finally reach Moses, who becomes God’s instrument to liberate his people but who also meets many times with rejection by the same people. What emerges from these events narrated by Sacred Scripture, which show Stephen’s devout hearing, is God, who never tires of going out to man even though he often meets with obstinate opposition, and this is true in the past, the present and the future. Therefore, he sees in the whole of the Old Testament the prefiguration of the coming of Jesus himself, the Son of God made flesh, who -- like the ancient Fathers -- encounters obstacles, refusal and death.
In his meditation on God’s action in salvation history, by emphasizing the perennial temptation to reject God and His action, he affirms that Jesus is the Righteous One announced by the prophets; in him, God himself has made himself present in a unique and definitive way: Jesus is the “place” of true worship. Stephen does not deny the importance of the temple for a certain period of time, but he underscores that “God does not dwell in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48). The new, true temple where God abides is His Son, who put on human flesh; it is the humanity of Christ, the Risen One who gathers the nations and unites them in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.  [No temple built by man can contain God, only Jesus Christ can be the true temple]
Icon known as "Made Not By Hands"
The expression of the temple as “not made by hands” is also found in the theology of St. Paul and in the Letter to the Hebrews; the body of Jesus, which he assumed in order to offer himself as a sacrificial victim for the expiation of sins, the body of Jesus is the new temple of God, the place of the presence of the living God; in Him, God and man, God and the world are really in contact: Jesus takes upon himself all the sin of humanity in order to cast it into God’s love and to “burn it” in this love. To approach the Cross, to enter into communion with Christ, means entering into this transformation. This is what it is to enter into contact with God, to enter into the true temple. [The only true temple is Jesus Christ Himself.  This is where we must enter]
Stephen's Vision of Jesus at
Right Hand of the Father
Stephen’s life and words are interrupted suddenly when he is stoned, but his martyrdom is the fulfillment of his life and of his message: he becomes one thing with Christ. Thus, his meditation on God’s action in history, on the divine Word, which in Jesus finds its complete fulfillment, becomes a participation in the same prayer of the Cross. [Through prayer and meditation on the scriptures we, too, can become "one thing with Christ."]  Before dying, in fact, he exclaims: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59), taking as his own the words of Psalm 31 (verse 6) and following the last words of Jesus on Calvary: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Lastly, like Jesus, he cries out in a loud voice before those who are stoning him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Let us note that, if on the one hand the prayer of Stephen harkens back to Jesus’, it is addressed to someone different, because the invocation is addressed to the Lord; that is to Jesus, whom he contemplates glorified at the right hand of the Father: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 55).

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Stephen’s witness offers us several pointers for our prayer and for our lives. We may ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and in the end to attain to the gift of himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from seeing God’s action, which in Jesus Christ reached its summit. Our prayer, too, should be nourished by listening to God’s Word, in communion with Jesus and his Church.
A second element: St. Stephen sees the figure and mission of Jesus prefigured in the story of the relationship of love between God and man. He -- the Son of God -- is the temple “not made by hands” where the presence of God the Father becomes so close that it enters into our human flesh, in order to lead us to God -- in order to open to us the gates of Heaven. Our prayer, then, should be a contemplation of Jesus at the right hand of God, of Jesus as Lord of our, or my, daily life. In him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can address God, we can make real contact with God, with the faith and abandonment of children who turn to a Father who loves them infinitely. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our catechesis on Christian prayer, we now consider the speech which Saint Stephen, the first martyr, delivered before his death. Stephen’s words are clearly grounded in a prayerful re-reading of the Christ event in the light of God’s word. Accused of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and the customs handed down by Moses, Stephen responds by presenting Jesus as the Righteous One proclaimed by the prophets, in whom God has become present to humanity in a unique and definitive way. As the Son of God made man, Jesus is himself the true temple of God in the world; by his death for our sins and his rising to new life, he has now become the definitive “place” where true worship is offered to God. Stephen’s witness to Christ, nourished by prayer, culminates in his martyrdom. By his intercession and example may we learn daily to unite prayer, contemplation of Christ and reflection on God’s word. In this way we will appreciate more deeply God’s saving plan, and make Christ truly the Lord of our lives.
As St. Stephen said "God does not dwell in houses made with hands."  If we are to be one with Christ, we must rise about the material and mortal and dwell in the Spiritual Temple which is Jesus Christ.

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