Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
A woman was sent to the hospital in an ambulance, because she was critically ill. On arrival at the hospital, she underwent a major surgery. During the surgery, she had a near-death experience. She saw herself standing before God as already dead. She pleaded with God in tears that she wasn’t ready to die yet, and needed more time on earth. This was a lady in her 70s. God decided to add 40 years to her lifespan. And, she woke up on the surgical table. She went on to make a perfect recovery. Before leaving the hospital, she asked for a facelift (plastic surgery), so she could look sweet sixteen once more; after all, she has 40 more years ahead of her, as the bonus God granted her. After a successful plastic surgery, since she came to the hospital in an ambulance, she needed to take the bus from the hospital to return home. She was to cross the road to the other side, in order to catch her bus. In the process of crossing the road, she was run over by a car and she died. Arriving again in heaven, she protested against God: “Why am I dead, since you added 40 more years to my lifespan”? God exclaimed: “was it you, I didn’t recognize you!”
Our story tells us that “time” is deceptive, especially when we imagine that we have much of it. In a twinkling of an eye, all can come to an end. Yet, human beings bet on the time that is not theirs and brag today about medical science’s ability to prolong life, without accounting for every life that could be and is taken everyday! The daily process of the purification of life is what brings out the joy of living and not the procrastination that is the thief of time. Like our story, life is a period purification and purgation. The facelift that brings out our physical beauty is also required for our inner beauty, but only God can perform the surgery of inner beauty through his commandments.
“Purification Sunday”, the name we chose for this 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year B, 2021, teaches us two important lessons: life is a gift and life must be appreciated by living it in a certain manner. The way we live life determines either our appreciation of it or disdain for it. We purify life as a sign of appreciation, and waste it as a sign of disdain for it. Our first reading tells the story of oppression and slavery as a wrong way to live one’s life. Life must be lived in justice, in order to live it well. The liberation from Egypt is the begin of a lesson in justice as a way of life. The Egyptians were punished for their unjust treatments of the Israelites, and the Israelites were given laws to keep as a lesson in acquiring the justice that was lacking among the Egyptians.
The commandments of God are the means for the purification of life through the practice of justice among the children of God. The preamble to the giving of God’s commandments starts out with the remembrance of God’s action of justice through liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. The commandments are meant to correct a repeat of what happened in Egypt—slavery and oppression under whatever pretext. The intervention of God to liberate his children from Egypt underscores the dignity inherent in every human being that must be respected by others. This accounts for why the larger portion of the commandments of God given to Israel is about social relations among the children of God, rather than their relationships with God. Social and distributive justices amount to paragons in inter-human relationships.
Today’s gospel reveals that everybody can break God’s commandments and that people do break God’s commandments. It follows that God’s punishment was not reserved alone for the Egyptians, whom God punished for their mistreatments of Israelites, Jesus makes a whip out of those desecrating God’s Temple as a lesson that race, nationality, gender and status are inconsequential when God punishes a sinner. What matters is that every sinner is invited to conversion through punishment. Punishment is purgative and corrective. This is the perspective to read into the actions of Jesus today. Unlike many Egyptians who lost their lives due to God’s punishment, no one loses live through the whips of Jesus. What people definitely lost, through the actions of Jesus’ purification of the Temple, is money. It is precisely the priority given to money making at the expense of the poor (the ripe off of the poor) and in the name and garb of religious services and duties that Jesus condemns. Human life is priceless, so beyond pecuniary value.
If no one is punished with death on account of sin, the desecration of the Temple, Jesus is the one condemned to death to purify the Temple of God as well as human beings by taking away their sins. This is the message of our second reading. The message of Cross, of which Paul speaks, summarizes the reason why Jesus died—to purify and reconcile humanity with God. The statement, “Destroy this Temple and I will raise it up in three days”, of our gospel reading provides an explanation for the way to purify oneself from sin—the power of Jesus’ death on the Cross of Calvary and the resurrection that guarantees that he lives forever to take away sins.
The Commandments of our first reading, that humanity keeps flouting, finds an alchemy in Jesus’ Cross and death. The resurrection of Jesus turns the meaning of sin from the certainty of death, to the guarantee of resurrection through purification—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. This novelty neither falls under the Jewish search for miracles nor the Greek preoccupation with wisdom, it underscores God’s laws of love that no human justice system or philosophical quest can every comprehend. The Commandment of love, that shows itself through sacrificial love for sinners, is the yardstick for measuring God’s commandments and the best approach to inter-human relationships.
Love purifies us from every negative and enslaving ideology and sees the best in the other. “Purification Sunday” begins with the replacement of the desires for miracles with the love of the Cross and the transformation of human wisdom into the acceptance of the primacy of love exemplified in Jesus Christ. There is now only one law—LOVE. Although love passes through the Cross, it is love that also makes the Cross meaningful. Today’s clarion call is to migrate to the zone and dwelling place of love. Where there is love, there is peace. Where there is love, God dwells there. It is the absence of love that engenders the enslavement of one group/race/gender by another. No wonder, Jesus will summarize the whole law as “love of God and neighbor”. The new example of the power of love is the Cross. To love is to fulfill the law. And the carrying of the cross of love is to dwell with God: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”.
Lest we forget, you and I are the temples of God needing purification. There is no Temple standing in Jerusalem today, because you are now the Temple of God. The filth of your sin requires more than a deodorant, it requires a purification. The only purification profitable for every sinner is love, sacrificial love that does not shy from embracing the cross of contradiction of the gospel and desire of prosperity according to earth standards. Love and Cross are the perfect remedy for sin, and the possibility of wearing the cologne or perfume of God—death to sin!
By Fr. Ayodele Ayeni, a Spiritan