Our New Sacramental Temple

Birgit - cathedral tabernacle

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you. My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. (Psalm 63:1-2)

As this passage from Psalm 63 tells us, the ancient Israelites yearned to see God like a person in the desert yearns to see water. They longed for Him, thirsted for Him, and had a burning desire to be in His presence. They wanted to see Him with their own eyes, and the temple in Jerusalem (the “sanctuary” spoken of in this psalm) allowed them to do just that. Of course, they couldn’t physically see God, but the temple was His house, His special dwelling place on earth (1 Kings 8:13, 1 Chronicles 17:12). They went there to encounter Him and offer Him sacrifice, and the temple furnishings functioned as sacramental symbols that allowed them to “see” God, much like crucifixes and sacred images allow us to “see” Him today.

However, the temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, so the ancient locus of God’s presence on earth is no longer with us. This raises a very serious question for Catholics today: does God still have a dwelling place on earth where we can encounter Him and give Him our worship? In this article, I’d like to suggest that the answer to this question is yes. God still dwells among His people, but His presence isn’t limited to one specific place. Rather, he is now present to us wherever the sacraments are celebrated, so they are our new temple, the place where Catholics can meet God and worship Him.

Our Spiritual Temple

In the Gospel of John, a story about Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman subtly hints at the new temple. He finds the woman drawing water at a well and asks her for a drink; this turns into a conversation about God, the temple, and the Messiah. Specifically, the allusion to the new temple comes in a comment Jesus makes about worship in the Messianic age:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” (John 4:21, 23)

For our purposes here, the main point of this passage is the contrast between true worship and the worship given both “on this mountain” and “in Jerusalem.” To understand what Jesus means, we need to know a bit about the historical context of this conversation. He is talking about the Jewish and Samaritan temples, their sacred places where they believed they could encounter God and offer him sacrifice. The Samaritan temple was on a mountain called Mount Gerazim (what Jesus calls “this mountain”), and the Jewish temple was in Jerusalem.

True Spiritual Worship

Once we know the background to Jesus’ words, we can understand his meaning. He is telling the Samaritan woman that in the Messianic age, the age of the Church, true worship will be offered to God in neither the Samaritan temple nor the Jewish one. Instead, it will be offered in “spirit and truth,” which means that it will be offered through the Holy Spirit, whom the Gospel of John elsewhere calls the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 15:26, 16:13).

With this contrast, Jesus is saying that the new temple, the replacement of both the Jewish and Samaritan temples, won’t be a single place. Rather, since the Holy Spirit is everywhere, Christians can encounter God and worship him anywhere we want. In other words, our new temple isn’t really a temple at all (at least not literally); it is simply wherever the Spirit is present.

Our Sacramental Temple

At first glance, this may not seem like it has much to do with the sacraments. In fact, it might even seem decidedly non-sacramental because if we can worship God wherever and whenever we want, His presence can’t be limited to the times and places where the sacraments are celebrated. Furthermore, St. Paul seems to confirm this when he says that all Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19), which fits well with the idea that God is with us everywhere and at all times. If He dwells within us, we can never lack His presence.

However, before we declare this case closed, we need to take a closer look at what the Gospel of John says about the Holy Spirit and see if it gives us any further clues to the meaning of Jesus’ words about the new temple. When we do that, we find something pretty remarkable: the Holy Spirit comes to us in the sacraments. Specifically, there are three passages in John that make this connection.

The Spirit of Baptism

First, the Gospel links the Holy Spirit with Baptism. During a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, Jesus says:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

This birth “of water and the Spirit” is Baptism, so Jesus is saying that we need to be baptized to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is present in the sacrament of Baptism to incorporate people into the Church.

“Spirit and Life”

The second passage connects the Spirit with the Eucharist. In John 6:25-59, Jesus gives what biblical scholars often call the Bread of Life Discourse. It’s a sermon where He calls himself “the bread of life” multiple times (for example, John 6:35, 48), and at the end, he repeatedly tells His followers that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:51-58), a clear reference to the Eucharist. After Jesus gives this sermon, many of His disciples simply cannot accept such a strange teaching, so they decide to leave Him. In response, He tells those who continue to follow Him, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63)

At first, this may seem like a repudiation of everything He has just said. If “the flesh is of no avail,” then it’s difficult to see how eating His flesh can be of any benefit to us. However, Jesus cannot be contradicting himself here. Instead, He just means that his followers aren’t supposed to eat His flesh in its earthly form; we’re not supposed to bite off a piece of His leg or His arm. Instead, the Holy Spirit will enable Christians to eat His flesh and drink His blood in an entirely new (but still real) way, and we now know that this new way is in the Eucharist. As a result, when we celebrate the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is again present to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus.

The Spirit of Forgiveness

Finally, the third passage in the Gospel of John that links the Spirit with the sacraments comes after Jesus’ resurrection. He appears to the Apostles and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23) This passage doesn’t explain exactly how the Apostles are supposed to exercise this power, but Catholics recognize in it the institution of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Jesus is giving the Apostles the Holy Spirit so they can forgive sins, implying that when we confess our sins to a priest, the Spirit is present to effect that forgiveness.

When we read Jesus’ words about worship “in spirit and truth” in light of these passages, we can see that He was in fact referring to the sacraments. They are our new temple, the new locus of God’s presence on earth, the place where we can encounter Him and worship Him through the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel specifically mentions only three sacraments, but as Catholics we can extrapolate from this and say that all seven constitute our new temple. We can encounter God and worship Him “in spirit and truth” in all the sacraments, not just Baptism, the Eucharist, and Reconciliation.

John versus Paul?

However, this seems to contradict what St. Paul said. If the sacraments are our new temple, then how can we ourselves also be temples? This may sound like a difficult problem at first, but in reality it’s a false dichotomy. We don’t need to choose either the sacraments or ourselves; rather, the new temple is both. God is present when we celebrate the sacraments, and he is also present in each and every member of the Church. We offer him true worship through the Spirit when we celebrate the sacraments as well as when we pray on our own.

In fact, if we contemplate the words of John’s Gospel more deeply, we can even see that the two teachings are closely related: God dwells in us precisely because we receive the sacraments. For example, Jesus says that we enter the Church through Baptism, which implies that we also become temples of the Holy Spirit through this sacrament as well. Similarly, in the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56) In other words, God remains in us precisely because we continue to receive the Eucharist.

Finally, since the power to forgive sins has been given to the Church, we need to confess our sins in order to for God to dwell in us again when we find ourselves in a state of mortal sin. As a result, we can see that the teachings of St. Paul and the Gospel of John about the new temple actually have a very close relationship with each other. St. Paul is right that we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, but we become temples by first encountering God in the sacraments, just like the Gospel of John says.

Seeing God

Like the ancient Israelites, we too should long to see God; we should ache and thirst to be in his presence. Similarly, we should go to the temple to fulfill that desire, just like the Israelites did in the Old Testament. However, unlike ancient Israel, our temple isn’t a building; the special dwelling place of God on earth is no longer a single place. Rather, He is present in the sacraments, so we should receive them frequently in order to encounter Him and offer Him the worship He desires. If we do this, He will then dwell in us, allowing us to meet Him and worship Him any time and any place we want.

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