Last week Fr. R.B. Williams, OP, was here to preach a parish Lenten mission. Everyone who attended found it very helpful and inspirational. I had the opportunity to spend a little time with Fr. Williams when he was not engaged in preaching the mission; he was very enjoyable company.
At one point he remarked about the very formal process our Diocese has for approving preachers for parish missions. He said that it had been a long time since he had seen the sort of letters that our Chancery routinely sends to priests and religious who preach parish missions. The process arose out of necessity. During the 1980’s several parishes had trouble with people who presented themselves as missionaries. Not all of those who claimed to be priests were actually priests; some of those who were priests were in troubled relationships with their Bishops or Religious Superiors.
I hadn’t really thought about it, but our Diocesan process for approving preachers and missionaries is rather formal and old-fashioned, but it was a necessary response to the need for credentials from clergy from outside the Diocese. The need to validate credentials or competency is a common need; it was the motivation behind the question that the people of Jerusalem posed to Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel.
During a trip to Jerusalem for Passover Jesus went on a bit of a rampage. “He made a whip out of cords and drove” money changers and vendors out of the Temple precincts. (John 2:15-16) The bystanders and leaders of the Temple were understandably upset by Jesus’ violent actions, and asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (John 2:18)
The request for a sign was the usual way of ascertaining the authority and legitimacy of an itinerant preacher or religious reformer. They were asking for the normal sort of credentials that any Rabbi would have offered to congregants or potential disciples. Unfortunately for them, they had already seen the “sign,” but had failed to understand it.
The first eleven chapters of John’s Gospel are an extended catechesis on Baptism. This long catechetical instruction contains seven “signs” that Jesus performed. The seven signs describe Baptism from seven different perspectives. The “sign” called the “cleansing of the Temple” is the second in the series. It describes Baptism as creating a new focus for worship of God, one that is centered on Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross rather than on the sacrifices offered in the Temple.
Baptism is the door that allows us to enter into worship of the Resurrected Christ. During our parish mission Fr. Williams emphasized the enduring value of Baptism. He invited those attending to be mindful of why we bless ourselves with Holy Water at the door of the church. The blessing with Holy Water is intended to be a reminder of our Baptism, the Sacrament that admits us into the Church. When we cross ourselves with Holy Water we say, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – the words that were pronounced over us at Baptism.
The sign of Baptism is a central aspect of the Catholic life; it admits us into the company of the Church, and admits us to the table of the Eucharist. It is a sign whose value we should cherish. There are other signs, however, whose meaning might be less clear to us. Each day God gives us guidance through signs. Some of those are easy to interpret. The positive feelings that we experience at Mass, and during our personal prayer time, are signs by which God leads us to a deeper love of God and neighbor. Sometimes, however, our experience of prayer is not positive or affirming; sometimes the daily events in our lives are difficult, challenging or even tragic. Our faithful and prayerful attention is required in order to make sense of those signs.
When Jesus drove the money changers and vendors out of the Temple area, most people reacted negatively. They were bothered and offended. This was a sign from God, but they could not understand it because they perceived it as a threatening and destructive experience. Sadly, they failed to see the interpretive guidance that Jesus gave them. Much later, after his Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples began to understand. They saw in the words of Psalm 69:10 the meaning of the sign that Jesus had performed. The Gospel says, “His disciples recalled the words of scripture: Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:17)
Not all of the negative or threatening or tragic experiences we have are like this sign that Jesus performed. Often, tragedy and loss are nothing more than that: tragic and destructive. Occasionally, however, troubles and trials can be signs from God. When this is the case, there is always help and guidance provided to help us understand the meaning of the event. Just as the Scriptures helped the disciples make sense of this sign performed by Jesus, the Scriptures can help us make sense of God’s actions in our lives.
The troubles or trials that are more than merely tragedies and burdens are those that call us to repentance (like the sign in today’s Gospel), or to deeper devotion. Sometimes, the experiences that we would classify as negative or undesirable are God’s voice calling to us. Our conscious effort is required to discriminate between God’s voice and the voices that might lead us away from God. God’s voice leads us to greater humility, greater love of God and neighbor, greater compassion for human weakness (that of others and self), and greater faith.
The next time you are confused or offended or troubled or burdened by an event or person, look closely at the direction your life takes as a result of that experience. If you are tempted to turn away from God because of suffering or tragedy, that is a sign of an influence to be rejected. If you find yourself drawn to prayer, to reach out to another person, to grow in faith or hope or charity, that is a sign of something to be embraced.
It was not until after the Resurrection that the disciples truly began to understand Jesus and his teaching. We, too, often need time to reflect on our experiences in order to make sense of them. As with the disciples, our understanding of how God leads us will be made easier and clearer when we attend to the words of the Scriptures. During this coming week of Lent, we might do well to reflect on the Scriptural text that helped the disciples understand Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. During this coming week, take some time to reflect on how zeal for God’s house inspired Jesus, and how zeal for God’s house might inspire you.