HOMILY FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEDICATION OF THE ABBEY CHURCH
6 SEPTEMBER 2020
I welcome you all on behalf of Fr Abbot and of the monastic community to this Mass. We are celebrating today the anniversary of the dedication of this Abbey Church. I am Fr Gabriel. We thank you who are joining us by live and video streaming, because you remind us that the purpose of this, as of any, church is for it to be an outward and visible sign of an inner reality, the body of Christ throughout the world, which we are all called to be, at all times, wherever we are.
All three readings this morning make some reference or allusion to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is obviously appropriate for the anniversary of the dedication of a church, since the ideas of a church building and its dedication are rooted in this Temple in Jerusalem as it is set out in the Old Testament and in the original experience of Israel as the people of God.
In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel, at the time of the Exile, towards the end of his book, has a vision of water flowing out from under the altar of the Temple, creating a river which flows into the sea and along whose banks grow trees bearing fruit to eat and leaves that are medicinal. It is a vision of nurture and healing for a new creation, with the Temple as its origin and foundation.
In the second reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Christians as the new people of God and part of God’s household, built on the foundations of the prophets and of the apostles, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone, are called to grow into a holy temple in the Lord, to be built into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Here the Temple is an image for the reality it most deeply signifies and effects, a holy people making a new creation.
In the Gospel, meanwhile, we are in the Temple in Jerusalem most literally, at least in this sense that early in his Gospel, St John has Jesus cleansing the Temple of the sellers of animals for the sacrifice and moneychangers, saying that his Father’s house is not to be turned into a market. It is a dramatic and confrontational prophetic gesture, which understandably causes affront and leads to the question about what sign he can give to justify such behaviour. Jesus’ response is in effect to point not just to the end of the system of animal sacrifice, but indeed to the destruction of the Temple itself. Jesus in his earthly reality and human body, replaces the Temple: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’. The evangelist adds the commentary: ‘He was speaking of the Temple that was his body and when he rose from the dead his disciples remembered that he had said this and they believed the scripture and what he had said’.
There is little doubt from the history of Judaism and from the history of Christianity about the importance of holy buildings and their rooting in the idea of the Temple, a place where God dwells. Still it is clear that God dwells in them only to express and to create a human community and human hearts, where God will dwell; they are for the nurture, for the healing, for the salvation of the people of God, for a new creation.
This is true for any church. For a monastic church it is the place where the monastic community is born, the place of clothing and profession, the place where the community comes for the set hours each day and for the Eucharist to offer prayer and thanksgiving to God. We are most thankful for this place. We pray that it may be for us and for those who join us here in it, by whatever means and to whatever good purpose, a place where we meet God, where we are nurtured and healed and made new. It, and the prayer that takes place in it, has a style, one among others, but the key thing is something deeper than a style.
St Benedict has a chapter, number 52, on the oratory of the monastery. He does not require anything grand and imposing, something grade 1 listed, though of course monastic churches have not infrequently been such and not for no or false reason. But still it is good to be reminded about what is the purpose at the heart of the oratory, in words which echoes today’s gospel: ‘The oratory ought to be what it is called’ [that is to say the place of prayer] ‘and nothing else is to be done or stored there’ and a little later in the brief chapter he adds ‘if at other times someone chooses to pray privately, he may simply go in and pray’.
Simply go in and pray: it is what churches are for, but more particularly it is what we are for. We monks for sure, but not just us. It is a shared heritage, one in these strange and disconcerting days of lockdown, which is presented nonetheless to us anew, to be the new temple, the resurrection body of Christ, in the holy Spirit, the true dwelling place for God.