Jesus Tells a Story

A year ago we Episcopalians began reading on Sundays the Gospel of Luke, a story which begins in the temple. The Old Testament ends with the threat that there’s going to be a famine of hearing the word of the Lord, and that famine would last for four hundred years; no prophetic voice for four hundred years until the priest Zechariah is standing at the altar in the temple when an angel appears to him vouchsafing to him that he and Elizabeth will have a son. Coming to the end of that liturgical calendar, we read a fitting inclusio: in Luke 21, Jesus tells a story that takes place in the temple. The Hebrew word for temple (haykal) is the same word that means palace. God being king, the temple is God’s palace. Its architecture and decoration emphasizes the fact that God is the king of the universe upon whom our lives depend. 

The holy of holies was set up as a throne room with the ark of the covenant, the footstool of God the king ruling from within his throne room. And the other adornments of the temple and the overall architectural plan was meant to be a kind of microcosmic replica, making the point that here dwells the God of the whole universe before whom and to whom we will have to give account of our lives.

The other factor connected with prayer in the temple is that it brings to mind the whole question of our worthiness to come into the presence of the Most High. Because the king of the universe is holy, and everything about the temple underscores that fact.

The temple is a replica of the cosmic and celestial temple, the real temple in which God is said to dwell, emphasizes God’s holiness. In Isaiah 6:1 Isaiah says that, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the haykal.” 

It’s described as a palace with God as king. “Above him were seraphs each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces and with two wings they covered their feet and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another ‘Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh,’ Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory. And at the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the palace was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me,’ I cried, ‘for I am ruined for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts!’ And then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand which he had taken with tongs from the altar and with it he touched my mouth and said ‘Behold, this has touched your lips and your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’” (Isaiah 6:2-7)

The earthly temple, built by King David’s son, was meant to replicate the heavenly one, and just so to cause everyone who entered it to search their hearts and ask: “Am I a creature fit to come into the presence of the Holy One of Israel?“ The architecture reinforced it. There was a holy of holies where God has his throne room. And only one priest, the high priest, could go in there and only once a year, and only after much sacrifice. Then there’s the outer sanctum, the holy place where even the royals could not go, only the priests as they performed their required duties. And outside that there is a curtain to keep us out. And on the other side of the curtain is a laver by which we would cleanse ourselves and an altar upon which sacrifice was made. All of this visual aid makes the point that we need sacrifice and cleansing to come into the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

All this will get reflected in the Collect (or Prayer) for Purity at the beginning of every service of Holy Eucharist. “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”