Hope as the Temple Crumbles

“…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over […], and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Jesus is in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple in this section of Luke’s Gospel, as he comes closer and closer to the time of his betrayal and crucifixion.  He’s there challenging the received wisdom of the scribes and pharisees, defending himself against attempts to discredit him or show him as a law breaker.  In some respects this is not friendly territory.

And yet, it’s important to understand exactly what the temple was, and what it represented to the Jews of the day.  To all the Jews of the day.  It might be true that certain parties held sway of this or that aspect of temple life.  But this was still the temple.  This was the temple of the God of Israel, the heart of Israel and the spiritual heart of the people.  All Jewish people, most of whom didn’t identify with particular religious parties, came to this temple to offer sacrifice and to pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Add to this strong, foundational connection, the structure of the temple itself.  Impressive not only in its overall size and impression, but in the enormous size of the individual building stones used in its retaining wall (one of the remaining stones, for example, is estimated to weigh 570 tons).  The temple itself was built with white marble, standing in high contrast to the local stone, and gleaming in the daylight atop a foundation approximately twice the size of the Acropolis in Athens and taking up about 1/6th of the city.  It must have been a wonder to behold.

It is no surprise that the conversation turned to the beauty of the edifice, about how it was adorned with stones and contained gifts dedicated to God.

Imagine yourself in the place of the disciples, gazing about in wonder and reverence, as Jesus responds, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The disciples have been  with Jesus long enough to expect his answers to be difficult to follow from time to time.  They haven’t quite figured out what all his references to the Son of Man being handed over and mocked mean (cf. Luke 18:31-34), but this comment is different.

When the first temple was cast down, the people of Israel had gone into exile and struggled with the question of God’s abandonment, with whether they were being punished for their sins.  Imagine the concern they felt hearing Jesus’ words.

Perhaps some were doubtful, some fearful, but regardless of their immediate response, they have to ask: “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus recognizes their concerns and understands their fears.  He wants them to understand that the destruction of the temple he foretells is not the end, it is not part of the second coming, but is a day coming imminently (70 AD to be exact).  Tragedy will occur, but history will go on.

Jesus recognizes how easily we can put our trust in things made with human hands–after all, we can create so wonderfully, imitating the Creator whose image we bear.  We tend to think of certain things as permanent, even though they exist in impermanence (Peter Berger has written memorably about this in The Sacred Canopy and The Social Construction of Reality).  This is the struggle the disciples are facing.  Does the destruction of the temple, in all its grandeur, mean the end?  Will the destruction of so great an icon mean the end of history?  Is the Day of the Lord, foretold in the prophetic tradition, connected with it?

Jesus anticipates these thoughts, and he warns his followers–warns us–not to put stock in the words of those who would  gain attention and frighten people by declaring the end of days: “Beware that you are not led astray” he says, “for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”  The implication being that the second coming will be such that no one will require convincing.  In contrast, fear mongers and charlatans have always and will always exist: do not be taken in by them.

Continuing, Jesus affirms their recognition that the Day of the Lord will come, but he allays their fears, telling them that the evils of the world, i.e. wars and insurrections, kingdoms and nations rising against one another will continue, but they should not be terrified, “for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

In other words, these events point to the immediacy of the Kingdom of God precisely because they testify to the fact that the world is not yet as it should be.  They serve as a reminder of the need for the Day of the Lord, when wrongs will be righted, as well as a portent that the day is coming.  But there is no simple formula, and this serves as an overview of what sorts of things will come, but not immediately.

What comes in the immediate future of the disciples is persecution in the name of Christ.  They are to be arrested, thrown in prison, hauled before magistrates and put on trial for their beliefs.  Some of them have the betrayal of friends and family to look forward to, and some will even be put to death.  This doesn’t sound like good news.  And on top of all of this Jesus them not to spend their time rehearsing their defense as classical orators did, but to instead trust in him, as he has promised to inspire their defense.  And this is the good news.  The world may go on as it always has, persecuting the righteous, but the righteous are not facing the world alone–Jesus himself is with them in their trials, promising that he will see them through to the end, and that “not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Christ is with the persecuted.  The Kingdom of God will break through at the most unexpected time.  This is indeed good news for those who are about to endure persecution, and that good news is what enabled them to face their trials with faith, so that, to paraphrase Tertullian, the blood of Christians could become seed.

This is good news for us today as well.  We do not know what may come in our lives, but we can be assured of the constancy of Christ.  Jesus will be with us, regardless of the difficulties we face.  There are those who attempt to spread fear of the end, but we know that we have been given all we are to do to prepare: to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.

We gain the strength to do these things through the sacraments that Christ ordained in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  These are the habits of life that will enable us to face the worst the world can throw at us. It may sound strange, shaped as we are by other ways of thinking, but the Kingdom of God stands against the antagonism and persecution of the world, and it comes into reality in the Body of Christ, a people gathered together in his name.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

This is why William Cavanaugh, in his book Torture and Eucharist can see that within the practices of the Christian community–chiefly the Eucharist and care for the dead–people found the means to resist the tyrannies that spread through South America and maintained control through torture, kidnapping and murder.  In that struggle, the juntas worked to ensure that those who were killed were unidentifiable, to instill fear, spread uncertainty and deny focal points of resistance.  But they couldn’t hide what they were doing forever, and once the Body of Christ could point to specific actions and say “Why are you persecuting me?” it was able to find the means of resistance.  This has been the work of martyrs since the earliest days of the Church: they stand as a witness to a greater power than the one that presumes to take their life.

All of this is Good News, even for us, though we have no real cause to see ourselves as oppressed or persecuted.  We live in a country where we can gather freely for worship, where we can practice our faith and aid our neighbors.  We should give thanks for that.  But we should also consider this.  In 2002, an Italian scholar published a study, attempting to account for the number of Christian martyrs.  According to his work, there have been roughly 70 million Christians martyred for their faith.  Of these, approximately 45 million, or 65% of the total, were martyred in the 20th century.

We still live in a time of martyrdom, where the faithful find themselves dragged before magistrates and thrown in prison and killed.  In Europe and in America the relative peace with which the faith has existed has allowed the development of theologies that have denied this, that have lulled us into thinking that we should look to the future, to the time before the Day of the Lord for persecution.  But we’re still living in history, and history is the time of martyrdom.  Despite this, Christ’s promise still rings true: “not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  The 20th Century has been called the bloodiest century on record in the history of the world, so when we think about it, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that more Christians were martyred in the last century than in any other.  But couple that with the fact that Christianity grew more in the 20th century than in any other as well, and perhaps we can begin to see the reality of Christ’s promise taking shape, not only for the martyrs, but for those left behind as well.

Perhaps this assurance will help us all as we face our little martyrdoms from day to day, as we deal with tragedy and pain.  It should inspire us to live with joy, and to be thankful that we have been given the things to do, the habits of life, that will enable us to face even the gravest persecution.  And perhaps, as we rejoice, we will find ways of taking advantage of the freedoms we enjoy to aid our brothers and sisters around the world who face oppression every day.  Amen.

[Note: The case of St. Polycarp is instructive, click below to read +Rowan Williams’ account of his martyrdom in Why Study the Past]