Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
1 Kings 8:22-30
1 Peter 2:1-5,9-10
Any sound theology of icons will be quick to repeat this point - that an icon is an image that is looked through, not looked upon. It points to something beyond itself. The icon presents us with the paradox that in the existence of the icon is the truth that the icon itself is not the object, but is meant to point to its subject. As physical, sensory creatures, we need the image to point beyond the image. We are dependent on some means, some mechanism as an intermediate link between our finitude and the infinite. We need the icon to remind us that the icon is not the point. Further still, the veneration of icons is partly about the person seen, but more fundamentally about the act of seeing itself. When the icon teaches us how to see, we have changed our relationship to it from taking meaning to receiving insight. They are templates that reveal how I am in the world, how I relate to my humanness and God’s self revelation. This distinction between veneration and adoration, between seeing into and through the object and idolatry of the object, is profoundly helpful in our practice of inhabiting this house of prayer. Indeed, we cannot find authentic peace and joy unless we hold this tension.
Each of the readings for today is about the nature of God’s communion with the material world and the means of our perception of that communion. In the first reading recounting the dedication of the temple by Solomon, this ambivalence toward the notion of a holy place, a house for God, is named as a question that sits alongside the building. After all the effort of raising this colossal structure, he says, “but will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.” Maybe he should have thought about that before construction began! And at the same time we can identify with the need for a material place and focus for worship that is set apart. It will be over the next thousand years while the temple is standing, as prophets arise to interpret it, that the paradox of sacred space as both gift and danger will become the central question in Israel’s life. The biblical epic preserves both the priestly tradition and the prophetic counter-voice. The priestly narrative is concerned with right ritual piety, sacrifices and sabbaths, festivals and fasts, that preserve the memory of the exodus, the giving of the law, and the retelling and reenacting of these events of God’s salvation. The holy of holies where resides the ark of the covenant, in the center of the temple, is regarded as the tangible presence of God on earth. The prophets as counter-voice function as a social conscience toward how the ritual is viewed and lived. They warn about the dangers of temple worship that degenerates into mere outer form and neglects an equal passion for justice and righteousness. The goal is ritual and remembrance that informs and is transformed into faithful living toward the poor, the outcast, the foreigner. The prophets say, essentially, “have the ritual, but the ritual itself is no substitute for faithful living. Authentic liturgical remembrance always expresses itself in justice and compassion.” In fact, they continue, outer piety can blind the heart to what God is most concerned about in human relationships, so watch out that you do not make the practices into idols of self-righteousness.
It is into this prophetic tradition and perspective that Jesus enter and exorcizes the temple of the corrupt practices into which the ritual has slid. The danger was real. Solomon’s caution was ignored. By now the temple does seek to contain God in patterns of power, exclusion, and legalistic judgmentalism. The worst possible path of misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the icon-like nature of the temple has come to pass and robbery has replaced the central purpose and priority of prayer. Taking on the prophetic mantle of the one who fully embodies remembrance and prayer becoming justice and compassion, Jesus sees through the institutional processes designed to keep the temple going and names what is below the surface. Our Lord sees the temple from the perspective of a window through the stones into the divine. It is this violation of the intent and veneration of its very nature that so angers him.
The epistle reading from 1 Peter, reflecting on the Jesus tradition, borrows building imagery but redefines it to declare the human person the temple of divine presence. We ourselves are the living stones, a spiritual house, no longer focused on a building, but in Christ are indwelt in our flesh by the spirit of God as God’s own people. The icon, the object, the building are all reflecting back to us our true nature as image bearers.
I remember reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God when I was in my twenties and the confusion I felt when he said that for him there was no difference between the kitchen and the oratory. In my young dualistic way of thinking, the kitchen was common and the church was the set apart sacred place of God’s presence - never the twain shall meet. As I have gotten older, I can at least aspire to Brother Lawrence’s integration of perception of God’s presence everywhere. When I talk to groups about the rule of St Benedict, the archetypal verse I always use is Benedict’s admonition to the cellarer to regard the pots and pans as the sacred vessels of the altar. I don’t know if Brother Lawrence was aware of the ecumenical councils, but St Benedict is certainly foreshadowing and intuiting the reverence and veneration of created things and seeing all the world as infused with this wonder and care because all of it is sacred, every place is a place for worship. Amen.