God is closer than our heartbeat

  • October 31, 2008
Dedication of St. John Lateran (Year A) Nov. 9 (Ezekiel 47:1, 2, 8-9, 12; Psalm 46; 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22)

Where does God dwell? To ancient people the answer was simple: In His house, where else?
Although a particular god might also have a celestial abode, the god would also be present at key moments in the temple dedicated to his worship. A temple provided a symbolic centre of the world and source of beneficial power. The ancient Israelites also had a temple dedicated to the worship of God, but not in the beginning. God’s presence was felt in the tent of meeting during the wilderness wandering and then in the various shrines dedicated to divine worship. But it was clear that although God might be present, God was not contained by any structure.

When King David first voiced his intention to build a temple for God, the divine response was unenthusiastic and dismissive. God had no need of a house nor did God desire one. But humans being the way they are, a temple there would be. The temple was the spiritual, symbolic and temporal core of the nation, and its sanctuary the place of encounter between the divine and human. Holiness and power radiated outward like spokes, sanctifying the people and the land. It is small wonder that the image of the temple was utilized by the prophet Ezekiel to describe the future saving action of God. The vision relates a time when the vivifying spirit of God — symbolized by water — would flow from the temple and give new life to the land. The author of the Gospel of John will use this image to describe Jesus as the bearer and bestower of God’s spirit and the new temple. Ezekiel’s vision hints at a future time in which the spirit of God will not be so hidden and contained.

Paul could see clearly that a shift in spiritual consciousness was in progress. In dealing with his recalcitrant Corinthian community he insists that the community of believers is itself the holy temple of God. The pronoun “you” is here used in its plural form, signifying that the congregation of believers baptized in God’s spirit is the new centre of divine presence and worship. Jesus proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God is among (or within) you!” giving rise to the insight that people themselves provide the dwelling place for God. Quarreling, factionalism, competition and backbiting are more than mere human failings — they are an affront to God and a defilement of the holy.

But it is the fourth evangelist who had the clearest insight into the shift in spiritual consciousness. After the “cleansing” of the temple and the verbal sparring with the authorities Jesus offers a strange response to their request for some sort of validating sign for His prophetic authority. He claims that if the temple is destroyed He will raise it up again in three days. They are incredulous for they — along with the many other uncomprehending individuals of John’s Gospel — interpret His metaphorical statement in a literal sense (a practice that has never died out). The narrator adds that Jesus was speaking of the temple of His body. This insight of course did not occur until after the Resurrection and the gift of the Spirit — the Gospel is a post-Easter reflection and interpretation of the remembered words and deeds of Jesus.

The new place of divine encounter is within the human heart and soul as well as in the community of believers. This new insight is developed throughout John’s Gospel: in the new spiritual order, God would not be localized, possessed or contained by anyone or anything. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, true worshippers would worship God in spirit and in truth.

Jesus left behind the divine spirit as His ongoing presence in the community and the source of eternal life in the human soul. When we forget that God is within each of us and in spiritually based communities, then we do not remember to reverence others and respect ourselves as the dwelling place of the holy and divine. It is far too easy to begin worshipping the institution rather than God or to search high and low for what already lies very close at hand. As one spiritual tradition puts it, God is closer to us than our own breath and heartbeat.