Words on the Word

3. Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17: You shall have no God but me.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25: We preach Christ crucified.
John 2:13-25: He could tell what a man had in him.

The giving of the Ten Commandments is inseparable from the epiphany that preceded it. It had been carefully prepared. On the third new moon after Israel left Egypt, the Lord appeared to Moses. He announced a new design. No longer would he reveal himself just to a few, especially favoured individual. All Israel would now be graced to witness his presence in order to become ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

The people had three days to prepare. They purified themselves, washed their clothes, practised sexual abstinence. They gathered around Sinai, without, though, scaling the mountain or even touching it. The site was sacred by virtue of God’s mere intention to reveal himself on it. On the morning of the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and trumpet blasts. Everyone trembled. Sinai was wrapped in smoke, ‘for the Lord descended upon it in fire’. Moses and Aaron were summoned into his presence on the top; the rest of Israel, below, were warned not to break through the ground-camp barrier to gaze, lest they perish. They were unfit to see the Lord. But they heard his voice of thunder proclaiming, ‘I am the Lord, you shall have no god but me’.     

It matters to reconstitute this scene for two reasons. First, to recall that the Decalogue did not, at first, reach Israel as text. The tablets came later. The Ten Words were originally uttered, pouring forth from God’s fiery presence. That was what gave them authority. That was what made Israel’s apostasy before the golden calf, a few days later, such a heinous crime. The second point to notice is this: the ten commandments were a means by which God made the motley rabble that set out from Pharaoh’s domain into a people. And not only that: ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

The commandments are more than a code for moral improvement along the lines of: ‘Do this, and you will be a better person’. Met with a faithful response, the commandments effect a kind of consecration. They transform Israel, establishing its women and men in a new relationship with God, rendered fit to reflect divine light in earthly darkness. There is a clear Before and After. Life is no longer the same once one has embraced this covenantal gift. 

‘In the beginning’, God made the world by a process of division. He divided light from darkness, dry land from water, fruitful ground from arid wastes, and so forth. With the giving of the Law, this creative work of separation extends to the ethical and spiritual sphere. The people are taught that the God calling them is unlike all other powers they may, in the past, have thought of as ‘gods’. They learn that God, in relation to creation, is radically other. They learn what is good, what is evil; what is sacred, what is profane. They are instructed that some behaviours are always binding while others are always forbidden.

Living as we do in times that delight in blurring boundaries, countering any transcendental claim with the riposte, ‘Yes, but’, we have need of this clarity. Remember why God gave the Law: to set Israel apart as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. The observance of the Decalogue is still the means by which God prepares the ground of our hearts to sow seeds of sanctity. The Ten Commandments were, and remain, the foundation for a divinised existence.

How easily God’s absolute title to us is distracted by lesser entitlements appears from the scene of the cleansing of the Temple. The House that was intended as solely the Father’s had been overrun by others’ interests. The sale of beasts for offering, a currency exchange for foreign pilgrims: these were formally directed towards the cult. Means have a way of turning into ends. In effect, the sanctuary had become a bazaar. Christ’s action is forthright, violent. He applies the words that thundered from Sinai to the letter: what is God’s must stay God’s; all idolising must be banished.

When we read this account, let us think how it applies to ourselves. Bear in mind the words of the Apostle: ‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Spirit?’ The cleansing of the Temple of stone is one Christ would re-enact in the temples of our lives. There, too, he would drive out intruders, separate light from darkness; there, too, he would let his steadfast but jealous love prepare a sanctuary for his presence. In baptism the Lord claimed us as his. When we receive the Eucharist, we re-pledge ourselves to him. We are hallowed, signed with his name. Do we see what a privilege this is, what vistas spread out before us?

This Lent, make it your exercise to look at yourself in the mirror at least once a day and remind yourself, ‘I am holy to the Lord’. Then live accordingly. Give thanks for the great gift of faith, for the blessing it is to enjoy a foretaste of eternal life right here and now, in the midst of our mortal condition.

El Greco, Purification of the Temple, ca 1600. Now in the Frick Collection.