Column: Our churches stand as symbols of Christ

by Father Mike Stubbs

If we saw a man bury his underwear in the ground, how would we interpret that action? Would we dismiss it simply as eccentric behavior? Would we suspect it to be an attempt to hide evidence of a crime? What would we think?

In the case of the prophet Jeremiah, none of those explanations fit. When he digs
up the loincloth, he discovers that “it was rotten, good for nothing. Then the message came from the Lord: So also I will allow the pride of Judah to rot, the great pride of Jerusalem. This wicked people who refuse to obey my words, who walk in the stubbornness of their hearts, and follow strange gods to serve and adore them, shall be like this loincloth which is good for nothing. For as close as the loincloth clings to a man’s loins, so had I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me” (Jer 13: 7b-11).

The prophets did not only speak on behalf of God. They sometimes also engaged in symbolic actions to make a point, to present their message to the people. Jeremiah’s burying his loincloth offers us a good example of one such symbolic action.

Like the prophets before him, Jesus also occasionally engaged in these symbolic actions as part of his message. That is what he is doing in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 2:13-22.

As Jesus drives the money-changers out of the Temple, the onlookers challenge him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” It is significant that their question includes the word “sign.”

In John’s Gospel, the word “sign” usually serves as the equivalent of the word “miracle.” It is therefore a word that resonates with a great deal of meaning. But here, Jesus’ challengers intend for it to mean a sign of authority permitting such violent behavior. Their question shows the depth of their misunderstanding. Far from needing a sign, Jesus’ action is itself a sign.

Jesus answers, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Once again, his challengers misunderstand Jesus. They think that Jesus is speaking about the building in which they are standing.

But instead, Jesus is referring to the temple as a metaphor for his body, which will be crucified, and then three days later rise from the dead. The temple is a sign for his body.

That is why this Gospel reading has been chosen for this Sunday, the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. In celebrating the dedication of that church, we also celebrate the dedication of our own. The church building where we will hear that Gospel reading offers us more than a shelter from the cold, a place where we can meet in comfort, with a sound system and lighting. The church building also serves as a metaphor for the community of believers who gather there.

And who are they? The body of Christ. We are a sign of Christ in the world. And our church building is a sign of our presence in the local community.

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