As we begin a new liturgical year, Sunday’s Gospel reminds us not simply to prepare for the commemoration of Jesus’ birth, but also for Christ’s Second Coming and thus our own ultimate purpose to help make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:18-20) and reign with our Lord and his Church Triumphant forever in heaven:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: ‘Watch’” (Mk. 13:33-37; Gospel, First Sunday of Advent, Year B).
The Church understands Jesus’ Second Coming will be precisely that: A Second and Final Coming in which Christ will definitively judge the living and the dead at the Last Judgment (CCC 1038-41). This doctrine is sometimes called “amillennialism,” which recognizes that the reign of Christ the King began with his earthly ministry, including the founding of his Catholic Church, and that Jesus continues his reign through his Church until he comes again at the climax of the world. The Church’s teaching stands in stark contrast to the popular, latter-day Protestant view of premillenialism, which holds that Jesus will return to earth and have a literal 1,000-year reign. Included in that proposed reign will be the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed in A.D. 70, and the accompanying reinstitution therein of Old Covenant sacrifices.
But Lindsey and likeminded Christians, who continue to preach the rebuilding of the Temple, are, along with some well-meaning Jews, mistaken. The great and sad irony is that these Christians undermine the biblically based, New Covenant work of Jesus, who in his one Sacrifice of Calvary fulfilled and thus made obsolete the Old Covenant sacrifices (Heb. 8:6-7, 13), which had to be offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the Old Covenant, only the high priest could go beyond the great Temple curtain to have intimate communion with God in the holy of holies, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16). When Jesus dies on the Cross, this Temple veil is torn in two—from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51)—signifying that humanity can now draw near to God as partakers of his divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), beginning at Baptism and continuing through the regular reception of his glorified Body and Blood at Mass (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:23-32; Jn. 6:47-59).
The Letter to the Hebrews makes clear that Jesus definitively ended the need for the repetitive animal sacrifices of Temple worship, when he suffered and died once for all (Heb. 7:27). In doing so, he culminated his one Sacrifice of Calvary in everlasting glory in the heavenly sanctuary, not a mere earthly one, (Hebrews 8:1-3; 9:11-12, 23-24); and he makes that Sacrifice present on earth “as a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,” (Heb. 5:6; see Heb. 5:5-10; 7:23-26;), i.e., under the appearances of bread and wine (see Gen. 14:18-20; Mt. 26:26-29). (I explain all this in greater detail in both The Biblical Roots of the Mass and What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church.)
So to think that God would authorize the reinstitution of Temple sacrifices is to misunderstand his salvific work and also, unwittingly, blaspheme Jesus, who rendered void the need for such inferior sacrifices (Heb. 9:11-12, 23-28).
Been there, done that
Many Christians mistakenly believe that the biggest obstacle in rebuilding the Temple is the major international conflict that would result from having to destroy the Islamic Dome of the Rock. While some Jews and Muslim argue that the Dome of the Rock could be spared in rebuilding the sacrificial heart of the Temple, the whole argument is—charitably stated—moot.
In short, there is something much greater to fear than mere human opposition, however formidable, in attempting to rebuild the Temple, as a Roman emperor dramatically learned one day. As noted, the Temple had fulfilled its prefiguring purpose in salvation history, and its destruction by the Romans within a generation of Christ’s Ascension sorrowfully fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that the Old Covenant sacrificial system would come to a cataclysmic end (see Mt. 24:1-2).
Almost 300 years later, the Roman Emperor Julian set out to refute Jesus and his New Covenant. He had developed a burning hatred of Christianity, apparently initiated at age six when a previous Christian emperor had directed the killing of most of the male members of his family. The young man subsequently repudiated Catholicism and thus became known in history as “Julian the Apostate.” As the Roman emperor, Julian decided to discredit Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church once and for all.
His plan? Rebuild the Temple and reinstitute its Old Covenant sacrifices, thus nullifying Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:1-2 that the Temple would be destroyed and be replaced by worshipped centered on him (see Jn. 2:18-22; 6:47-59). The “gates of hell” would thereby not only prevail against Jesus’ Church (see Mt. 16:18-19), but against Jesus himself.
As one historian describes the emperor’s attempt, “The high priest of the Hellenes would embarrass the God of the Galileans on His own terrain, making Him out to be a charlatan.”1 The Church could do nothing but invoke God’s aid. As Joseph Stalin once asked derisively, “The Pope! How many divisions does he got?”2 A rather omnipotent army of One, as Julian would soon discover. Historian Giuseppe Ricciotti retells the dramatic story as it unfolded:
After he made his decision, Julian entrusted its execution to Alypius, a trustworthy individual. . . . The events which followed would be almost incredible if they were not attested with substantial agreement by Julian’s pagan friend Ammianus, by the Arian Philostorgius, and by orthodox Christians such as Rufinus, Socrates, Theodoret, [and the Church Father] Gregory Nazianzen. . . . According to Ammianus, Julian allotted enormous sums for the enterprise. . . .
Toward the close of 362, however, violent earthquakes occurred along the Palestinian coast [and elsewhere]. . . . Jerusalem also suffered from these great tremors. Recently cleared portions of the temple area were at times littered with ruins caused by the earthquakes. On one occasion a violent tremor caused the collapse of a portico upon a large number of workmen, some of whom were killed, though others found refuge in a neighboring church.
Despite this, the project was pursued vigorously. Here we must leave the account to our neutral witness, Ammianus: “But though Alypius pushed the work forward energetically, and though he was assisted by the governor of the province, frightful balls of flame kept bursting forth near the foundations of the temple, and some were even burned to death. And since the elements persistently drove them back, Julian gave up the attempt.”3
Profiting from our Jewish brothers and sisters
Some have argued that petroleum has infrequently seeped to the surface of the Dead Sea, as has been recorded in history, and that this would provide a natural explanation to the admittedly unusual events of 362 in Jerusalem. But those who argue thus must realize that the Dead Sea lies 1,290 feet below the Mediterranean Sea, while the Temple Mount is 2,500 feet above the Mediterranean and also more than 25 miles from the Dead Sea!
And the remarkable events of 362 regarding the Temple were so stunning that the most powerful man in the world decided to give up his zealous enterprise, and these wondrous happenings have never been replicated since.
The events of A.D. 70 and 362 serve as covenant exclamation points that the New Covenant has indeed fulfilled the Old (see CCC 66-67). Still, Catholics should not view these events as reason to celebrate Israel’s downfall, lest they endure a much harsher divine judgment themselves.4 Nor should they invoke events of nearly 2,000 years as justifying virulent prejudices today. Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism are, in fact, invariably anti-Catholic. As Pope XI noted about Jews and Catholics, “Spiritually, we are all Semites,”5 the beneficiaries of God’s covenant plan to make a universal blessing of the nation of Israel (Gen. 12:1-2; 22:18)6 through his Jewish Son (Mt. 1:1). Jesus himself reminds us that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:22), and the biblical story of the Mass incontrovertibly testifies to the privileged role that the Jewish people have played in salvation history (see Rom. 9:3-5).
While the Church speaks of herself as the restored “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:11-16), God has certainly not abandoned those Jews who continue to profess the Old Covenant, even though its sacrifices cannot be offered. He desires them, as he desires all men and women, to freely embrace Christ and his New Covenant as members of his Catholic Church (see CCC 836, 839-40). The Messiah came to save all mankind, particularly those who share his heritage as an Israelite (see Mt. 1:21; 10:6, 15:24; CCC 438; 528).7
To participate fruitfully in this saving mission to both Jews and the world in general (Mt. 28:18-20), Catholics en masse must make knowing, living, and sharing their faith the unambiguous, number-one life priority it should be. They must truly seek God’s kingdom first in their lives (Mt. 6:33), setting aside soul-sapping modern distractions so they can understand well and passionately convey the biblical story of the Mass. While Mary, the Pope and the Eucharist are typically the three major obstacles that prospective converts must overcome, the roles of the Mother of God and the Vicar of Christ are more easily negotiated when seen in light of the foundational, saving work of our Eucharistic Lord. As Pope St. John Paul II reminds us, the mission of Christ and his Church is primarily conveyed and carried out in the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, implicitly reaffirming the pointlessness of trying to rebuild the Temple:
From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission. The Eucharist thus appears as both the source and the summit of all evangelization, since its goal is the communion of mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.8
If people come to know and believe in Jesus Christ, and how his saving work is profoundly continued in the Mass, the rest of the doctrinal dominoes will follow. Yet, testifying to the Truth in word must be coupled with witnessing to the Incarnate Word in deed. The example of ancient Israel bears emulating. Ancient Israelites yearned to pierce the veil of the Temple’s most holy place, consistently approaching God with reverential fear. Today, Catholics pierce that sacred veil on a regular basis, yet frequently commune with the Real Presence of the Eucharistic God-man in a casual and sometimes irreverent manner.
As St. John Paul II has exhorted, Catholics must become more like the One they worship, reverently offering themselves with Christ’s Sacrifice to the Father at Mass; receiving frequent Holy Communion; spending time with their Beloved in Eucharistic adoration; and making regular spiritual communions, 9 so that the world might better know that Jesus is truly Lord. If Catholics begin to see the Mass as the most profound and intimate communion with almighty God that is possible on earth, unworthy reception of the Eucharist will end overnight, liturgical abuses will cease; and the world will be won over to Christ, who will lead us to our ultimate and everlasting Communion in the heavenly sanctuary, when the sacramental veils of bread and wine will be removed and we will love our Lord, face to face, forever:10
Almighty God, help us to live the example of love we celebrate in this Eucharist, that we may come to its fulfillment in your Presence. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.11
1 Giuseppe Ricciotti, trans. by M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J., Julian the Apostate (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1960), 224.
2 Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948), 121; emphasis original.
3 Ibid. 224-25. Ammianus Marcellinus was the major Roman historian of his time. One could also argue his credibility is enhanced because his ultimate boss, Julian the Apostate, had a proverbial “dog in the fight.” Ammianus seemed to resolve any ambivalence he may have had by writing a very brief, though candid, account of the extraordinary historical events.
4 See Vatican II, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), 14. In addition, as Fr. Arthur Klyber, C.Ss.R., wrote in his book, Once a Jew. . ., “Looking back to the Jewish War against the Romans in 70 A.D., we might recall that only the Jewish Nation was destroyed then, and not the Jewish Religion. That Religion remained, and still is the Divine, but ‘unfinished symphony’ which God Himself had composed. We call it ‘unfinished,’ not as though God had failed to compose its beautiful Finale, but because [many of] the Israelites did not relish the charming nuances of that Finale which is Christianity” (New Hope, Kent.: Remnant of Israel, 1973), 20-21, emphasis original). Fr. Klyber referred to himself as a “completed Jew.”
5 Pope Pius XI, as cited in Pinchas Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1967), 114. Pius XI made his remark on September 6, 1938, when he received an ancient and valuable prayer book from Belgian pilgrims. Fittingly, the Pope’s words are intimately connected to the biblical story of the Mass, for they were inspired by reading a passage from what we today call Eucharistic Prayer I. As Lapide notes, “Opening it on the second prayer after the elevation of the host, the Pope read out to them the passage in which God is besought to accept the altar gifts with the same graciousness in which He once received Abraham’s sacrifice. ‘Whenever I read the words: “The sacrifice of our Father Abraham,’” the Pope said, ‘I cannot help being deeply moved. Mark well, we call Abraham our Patriarch, our ancestor. Anti-Semitism is irreconcilable with this lofty thought, the noble reality which this prayer expresses.’ And, with tears in his eyes, he concluded: ‘Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually, we are all Semites.’”
6 See Acts 3:25-26.
7 As a Jew who became a Catholic, Fr. Arthur Klyber, C.Ss.R., has written a cogent response for Catholic leaders who discourage evangelization efforts toward Jews: “By what strange Christ-spirit do we suddenly cut off the Lord’s own people from the love of their Lord?” (Klyber, He’s a Jew, [New Hope, Kent.: Remnant of Israel, Inc., 1969], 70).
8 St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia 22, footnote omitted.
9 Ibid., 10, 13, 25, 34, 42.
10 See 1 Cor. 13:12.
11 The Roman Missal, 2nd Edition (The Sacramentary) (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1985), “Prayer after Communion,” Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 289.