Today’s Gospel reading contains the final part of Jesus’ middle speech in the Gospel of Matthew—the seven parables about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says, “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Matt 13:52)
And today’s first reading from the final chapter of the book of Exodus definitely gives us “something old.” It narrates the erection of the desert tabernacle that had been described, in a kind of verbal blueprint, in chapters 36-38. This was the portable prototype of the temple that Solomon would eventually build in stone in Jerusalem. Does this description of something old offer something new for us? Yes.
The ancient Israelites were already turning something old into something new. Their pagan neighbors knew plenty about sacred spaces. There were temples galore in the Middle East. Every religion had its local gods, for whom people built what they felt to be a proper house. That’s where they gathered to honor and sacrifice to their god. What was new about the Israelites was, first, that their god was not a local god, but God, who was Lord of the whole cosmos, the maker of all things. But this God, Yahweh by name, had made Himself especially known in a local, particular way—by rescuing the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Moreover, this God of everywhere not only acted in particular times and places but accompanied the Hebrews in their desert pilgrimage. The Hebrews acknowledged this divine accompaniment by building this portable “temple,” called a tabernacle. When, finally, Solomon built a limestone version of this cloth house of God, he knew perfectly well that he was not putting God in the box. Read his prayer of dedication, which includes this thought: “If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). But it was a sacred space in which to gather and acknowledge his special presence to them.
While this way of thinking about the divine was already something new, Jesus and his followers brought in something newer. The community of the Jesus people would be a new temple. That’s what Jesus meant when he told Peter that he was the “rock” on which Jesus would build his community (Matt 16:18). John the Evangelist wrote of the Word of God becoming flesh and “tenting” among us (John 1:14); the humanity of Jesus is the concrete presence of God, the ultimate “sacred place.” That is why St. Paul could call the community of the church both the body of Christ and the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). Today, we speak more familiarly of the individual as a temple of the Holy Spirit (as in 1 Cor 6:19), but Paul and the other early Christians spoke more frequently of the whole community as temple.
When we gather to worship, we are that temple. So churches are
special because they house the assembly of believers, the new temple.
It helps to remembers Jesus’ saying, “Where two
or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst
of them.” (Matt 18:20) When we are conscious of this
reality as we gather to worship, it is always “something new.”
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