My dear friends in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in abundance in our Lord Jesus Christ on this Third Sunday of Lent. The conventional wisdom when building a modern Catholic Church is that there needs to be a large room located right before you enter the church that is purely social in intent. A Lutheran or Episcopal congregation would probably refer to this as a Narthex. In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, I often hear the term “Gathering Space” for the same room. The reason we expect churches to build these has to do with the change in people’s expectations of the church. It used to be that people went to church and, immediately upon entering the building, knew that the loudest noise they would make would be a whisper. Nowadays, studies show that people want to feel a sense of community when they come to church; they want to be able to talk and feel welcomed. They want to be able to hang up their coats and feel at home. Yet, we also want to respect that our churches are supposed to be places of prayer, not places to eat donuts while carrying on a conversation about last night’s football game. So, we’ve added this room as a place you can go to chat and build community. And yet, In most of the churches where they’ve built these rooms, I still hear people chatting away in church. Most of the time, the noise from the Narthex bleeds into the body of the church making it virtually impossible to pray and seeming to give permission to the people in church to chat with the people around them.
I think of this every time I hear this particular passage from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus cleanses the temple of the money changers. How was it that the Temple became a place for currency exchange? Well, it’s rather simple. When it became less common for people to own their own animals, there had to be some sort of way for people to be able to purchase them so that they could offer them for their sins. And, since it would be immoral for a Jew to offer Roman coins to buy their sacrifice but the Romans forbade the Jews from using their coins anywhere but the Temple, it became clear that the Jews would have to set up something on the Temple Mount for them to exchange their Roman coins in order to purchase their sacrifice. It’s all perfectly logical…but completely wrong. The purpose God gave his people the Temple wasn’t so they could buy and sell things. It was supposed to be a place dedicated to God where the Jewish people would gather to worship and sacrifice to Him. And, instead, it became a mall, a marketplace where animals are bought and sold and currency is exchanged.
What do we expect of our churches nowadays? Do you know someone who has left the church or have you ever left the church? Why did they, or you, leave? I know people who say they don’t go to church because it’s boring. I know people who have left the church because they disagree the church’s stance on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, social justice, and a whole host of other issues generally associated with politics. I know people who left the church because their parish was closed. And I know a whole lot of people who left the church simply because they found it easier to miss mass on a given weekend than to get dressed up and go. Should the Catholic Church try and put on a program for each of these groups of people? Church is boring, so let’s make it more entertaining. I could tell jokes and we could get an awesome band. Church is too political so I could avoid ever saying anything that is even close to politics. I could never say anything that is even remotely controversial; make my homilies all about golf or how God loves us regardless of what we do. At what point do you think Jesus would come walking into our parish and drive me out if I were to do that?
For me, it all summed up in the second reading today. St. Paul said “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” When we come to church, we should expect to be challenged. We should expect to hear the message about Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, who defeated evil by an act that seems like utter failure, by dying on a cross. We shouldn’t expect to be entertained or to have our political beliefs affirmed. We shouldn’t expect convenience. We shouldn’t even expect that we can always attend in the same place at the same time from now until eternity. We should expect Christ Jesus and him crucified, a stumbling block to some, but to we who have faith, our only source of salvation.