Monday, March 10, 2014

The Lord will Protect the Sanctity of His Church

We read, in the third chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees, about a miraculous intervention by the Lord to protect the sanctity of His Temple, His dwelling place among men. To set the scene, Simon, captain of the Temple, had a disagreement with the High Priest. Seeking revenge, Simon decides to desecrate the Temple by having the treasury stolen by the king, Seleucus. The Temple's sanctity and inviolability made it a safe place for the storage of money by widows, orphans, and others. To take the treasury was, thus a brazen act deifying the protection of God to those who trusted in the holiness of His sanctuary to safeguard their belongings. The king, greedily prizing the money of the orphans and widows of Jerusalem, sent Heliodorus with an armed escort to seize the money from the Temple. Desperate to avoid such a supreme sacrilege the priests "prostrated themselves before the altar in their priestly garments and called toward heaven upon him who had given the law about deposits, that he should keep them safe for those who had deposited them." (v. 15). Indeed the whole population of Jerusalem get into the act, "People also hurried out of their houses in crowds to make a general supplication because the holy place was about to be brought into contempt." (v. 18).

In the midst of all this prayer to the Most High to protect His dwelling place Heliodorus arrives and enters the Temple intent of seizing the treasure for his king. Before he can desecrate the Temple with his theft, the King of Kings acts:
But when he (Heliodorus arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror. For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien, and it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armor and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on each side of him and scourged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. (v. 22 - 26)
The Expulsion of Heliodorus by Raphael

Helidorus drops nearly dead to the floor and is only revived through the mercy of God brought on by the intercessions of the High Priest. Once recovered, Heliodorus offered sacrifice to the Lord and "made very great vows to the Savior of his life." (v. 35) Thus, through his intervention, God both protected the widows and orphans of Jerusalem and the holiness of his Temple, while converting a sinner to worship the true God.

We might wonder why, if God so jealously protects the sanctity of His Dwelling place,  the Temple is in fact desecrated time and again throughout its history. We need only turn to chapter five to find this question answered, for in chapter five Antiochus does indeed despoil the Temple.
Antiochus was elated in spirit, and did not perceive that the Lord was angered for a little while because of the sins of those who dwelt in the city (Jerusalem), and that therefore he was disregarding the holy place.
But if it had not happened that they (the Jews of Jerusalem) were involved in many sins, this man would have been scourged and turned back from his rash action as soon as he came forward, just as Heliodorus was, whom Seleucus the king sent to inspect the treasury.
But the Lord did not choose the nation for the sake of the holy place, but the place for the sake of the nation.
Therefore the place itself shared in the misfortunes that befell the nation and afterwards participated in its benefits; and what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory when the great Lord became reconciled. (v. 17-20)
In short, God willfully allowed Antiochus to do what He prevented Heliodorus from doing because of the sins of His people. 

If God protected His old covenant people and His old convenant dwelling place, how much more should we, His new convenant people, trust in the Lord and His protection? And alternatively, how much more zealously should we preserve the holiness and sanctity of our churches, where God is not just spiritually present, as He was in the Temple, but is physically present in the Most Holy Eucharist? The episode of the conversion of Heliodorus reminds us that our churches are not just community spaces, are not primarily places for us at all. No, they are dwelling places of the Most High. They are truly Holy Ground.

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