Many chapters of the Book of Exodus concern the preparations for setting up the Tent of Meeting which the Hebrews carried around with them and set up each time they made camp in the desert.
Inside this Tent, in the most holy and inner part of it called the Tabernacle, was kept the Ark of the Covenant. Moses himself received very detailed instructions from God for setting up this Tent of Meeting which was the precursor to the Temple Solomon built in Jerusalem.
Moses erected the tabernacle … spread the tent over the tabernacle … took the Testimony and placed it inside the ark … brought the ark into the tabernacle and put the screening veil in place… He placed the table in the Tent of Meeting … and on it arranged the loaves before Yahweh. He put the lamp-stand in the Tent of Meeting … put the golden altar in the Tent of Meeting in front of the veil … put the screen at the entrance to the tabernacle (Ex 40).
With infinite care to follow God’s instructions Moses sets up the Tent of Meeting. When he finished we are told: The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested on it and because of the glory of Yahweh that filled the tabernacle.
Every aspect of the setting up of the Tent of Meeting, and later, of the building and commissioning of the Temple, is done according to the instructions God gives. Everything is ritually purified and so are the priests, Aaron and his sons. The extraordinary detail of the rules for purification have a very important function – they bring home to us the truth of our need for purification; our unworthiness before the face of our holy God.
Moreover, it is only by reading Exodus carefully, following each step of the process of the setting up of the Tent containing the Ark, that we come to appreciate the sacredness of this place in which God dwelt among his People. And it is only by absorbing this reverence that we can begin to appreciate the outrage Jesus felt when he came to the Temple and saw the money-changers and animals defiling the holy Place.
What had happened? How had the Jews changed so much they now took little account of the sacredness of the Temple and had allowed it to be defiled?
The answer to this question cannot be given in one word but there are some simple principles we can point to.
One of the answers to the question ‘How did they come to lose respect?’ must surely be ‘Slowly, step by step.’
I cannot retrace the journey from awe and reverence for the holiness of the Temple to careless disregard for the presence of God there but I do know that the history of a people, like the history of an individual human life, involves countless little decisions, little steps, leading one by one to glory or disgrace, or perhaps to sad mediocrity.
The drug-overdosed teenager dead in a public toilet did not, most probably, get there by making just one decision. His journey to his personal tragedy would have started with one decision, followed by many others. Who knows the potential greatness of that young person – to which he must have said “no” numerous times.
The champion athlete, the medical student, the apprentice salesman, the seminarian, they too had to make innumerable decisions to reach their goal.
I believe the Jews simply made a series of wrong decisions, each one taking them closer and closer to the point at which even the wrongness of these decisions became obscured.
And what made these wrong decisions possible? Selfishness? Anger? Pride? Dishonesty? Laziness? Jealousy? I think it is – bad memory!
Lent is a good time for this kind of examination because it calls on us to examine ourselves; our own spiritual lives, our own relationship with the Lord.
Most likely your answer to the question: what made these wrong decisions possible? will involve one or the other of the seven capital sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, sloth but I’m thinking of a common human attribute, not in itself a sin, which can prevent a spiritual life from truly flourishing with devastating effectiveness and that is – a bad memory!
We forget our morning and evening prayers. We forget holy days of obligation. We forget not to eat meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We forget the sins we need to confess. We forget how many beers we’ve had. And we forget who we are and who is watching us every minute of the day.
Why do you think so many people don’t keep their Lenten resolutions? Do they decide one day that they no longer want to be good? Do they say: ‘I’m sick of trying to be good; I think from now on I will just be bad.’ Not at all!
Why did we fail to keep the good resolutions we make the night before? … in a busy day we just forget.Why do we eat meat on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday? … we forget.Why did the Jews in the desert make a golden calf? … they forgot the God who had led them out.
Moses’ biggest fear was always that the people would forget their God. If you read the books of the Old Testament the common, tedious refrain is always: Remember the Lord your God, do not forget the things he has done for you …
Do you think the religious leaders of the time maliciously decided to turn the Temple into a market place? I don’t think so. Their disgrace is that they were not vigilant. They didn’t do their job of protecting their sacred heritage and step by step they arrived at the cliff.
And we, too, forget:
- our prayers
- our Holy days of Obligation
- how many beers we’ve had
- to fast for one hour before Holy Communion
- the sins we need to confess
- the day of our death
Lent is a time for thinking of these things without getting discouraged; our God is patient and forgiving. Let’s pray for a renewed enthusiasm for growing spiritually during this wonderful time of grace .. and for the special grace of regular daily prayer which brings the gift of ‘remembering’.