Words on the Word
Dedication of the Cathedral
Ezekiel 47.1-12: The hand of the Lord led me to the entrance of the temple.
1 Corinthians 3.9-17: Brethren, we are God’s edifice.
John 2.13-22: Pull down this temple, and I shall raise it up in three days.
In daily life it is catastrophic when water flows out under a threshold — it’s an indication of a burst pipe, a leaking cistern, a bathtub tap left open. We ring the plumber, electrician, and carpenter, and prepare for a fat bill.
In Ezekiel’s vision, however, the water flowing forth ‘from below the threshold of the temple toward the east’ is a source of jubilation. The water does not cause damage. It brings healing and salvation. It does not flow randomly, but according to a plan. First it runs through the wilderness, which in Biblical parlance is a dried-out place. It begins to bloom! Then the water runs into the Dead Sea. This sea is called ‘dead’ because nothing can live in it. The sea does not issue in any watercourse. As a result it is massively salty. Only dead herring thrives in brine. Today the Dead Sea lies 430 metres below sea level, the lowest point in Asia. In Ezekiel’s day, it will have been a little higher, but not much. It will have been an infernus in the strict sense, a low-lying earthly hell reaching in towards the flaming heart of the earth.
Into this lifeless, terrible pond water from the temple starts pouring. Life awakens. The Dead Sea becomes lively, full of lovely fish, for ‘everything will live where the river goes’.
If we know our Bible, we shall recognise that Ezekiel paints a picture that reflects the earth’s original state, before sin and the necessity of death expelled man from Eden. There was a nourishing source there. The source turned into a river that watered paradise, then divided into four streams with mysterious names: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates (Gen 2.10-14). The streams wield their serpentine way throughout the earth, making it fruitful. It is a powerful image. It tells us that all life has a recognisable point of origin.
Even the most trivial crop, a few potatoes in an allotment or a cutting on our window sill, grows because life comes from somewhere, a source blessed by God. Therefore life secretly carries blessing for one who has eyes to see. I have indicated potatoes and geraniums; but this is a matter of infinitely greater consequence for us human beings, created in the image of God. It is an insight that should fill us with reverence with regard to our nature. Such reverence is needed in a time that regards life as cheap, taking it for granted that it can at whim be sold, exchanged, or cancelled without a fee.
Ezekiel uses a motif from Genesis, but translates it into a new context. In the beginning the water of life issues from a fountain. In the prophet’s vision, it issues from the temple of the Lord. There is more than organic life at stakes; we’re talking about grace and spirit. When the temple in Jerusalem was consecrated under Solomon, the presence of the Lord filled it in the form of a cloud, ‘and on account of the cloud the priests could not remain standing in service, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord’ (1 Kings 8.11). The Lord let himself be known in this house. From within it he answered his people’s prayers.
What the temple meant for Israel is clear from the gospel we have read. Jesus’s cleansing confirms the temple’s holiness. At the same time his words proclaim that the temple itself is a symbol of a greater reality. His challenge, ‘Pull down this temple, and I shall raise it up again in three days’, was a powerful provocation: it constituted the main accusation against him before Pilate. Faced with it, Jesus remained silent. What he had said couldn’t be explained. It had to be lived, manifested. When he rose on the third day, ‘according to the Scriptures’, the disciples understood what he had meant. It is Jesus’s Body, now, that is the definitive temple, an inexhaustible source of life-giving water that reforms our existence. This water reaches into our own dead seas, the areas of our life that are salt-poisoned and sterile. The water produces fruit for food, leaves for healing. It does not just wash over us. Mysteriously it wells up within us.
John tells us that Jesus once, on the last day of the feast of booths, stood in the middle of the temple and cried out: ‘Whoever believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (7.38). In baptism we were incorporated into Jesus’s Body. We have, as Paul tells us, become the temple of the Lord. Thus Ezekiel’s vision is also a description of what we ourselves must be, bearers of hope, of life into what is deadly, of light into what is dark.
These days there is a tendency to cardamomify* the Christian proclamation. We might therefore profitably note how demanding the Church herself is when, through the liturgy, she shows us what we believe and what we are called to become. She presents us with a vision that reaches from the beginning to the end of time. Nature and grace, ecology and liturgy are woven together. We ourselves are incorporated into the life of God.
This way we get an inkling of what the Church really is, not an out-of-date institution that must be updated through bureaucratic committees, but a divine mystery that discreetly but effectively renews the world, renders fruitless land fruitful, and raises the dead. What counts is to find our way back to the source overflowing with living water, to clear mud, sand, and dead crows out of the fountainhead of grace, in order that it may flow freely.
Our cathedral, dedicated on this day in 2016, concretely represents for us this wellspring. Let us rejoice and give thanks for all the grace we receive in this place. And let us be its effective channels, extending out towards our own time’s salty wastelands.
*The reference is to a children’s book by Thorbjørn Egner, known and loved by all Norwegians: The Town of Cardamom. The police officer of Cardamom, Constable Bastian, sings a nice little song in which he sums up the law that holds the community together: ‘You shall not be a bother to others, but be pleasant and nice; beyond that, you can do as you please.’
Erastus Salisbury Field, The Garden of Eden (ca. 1860) in the Boston Museum of Fine Art.