The Teacher as Living Temple

Douglas P. McManaman
March 24, 2021
Lenten Retreat Talk for the Catholic Teachers Guild,
2021 (Toronto Chapter)
Reproduced with Permission

I've been asked to reflect this morning on the temptation in the wilderness. You all know the account from the gospels; it takes place right after Jesus' baptism by John, in the Jordan,

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread."

He said in reply, "It is written: 'Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you' and 'with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'

Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me."

At this, Jesus said to him, "Get away, Satan! It is written: 'The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'"

Then the devil left him and behold, angels came and ministered to him.

In the first letter of John (3, 8) we read that the Son of God came into this world to undo the work of the devil. The Greek word evangelion was a word rarely used in the ancient world, and it meant not just good news but extraordinarily good news - that's why it was used rarely, because extraordinarily good news was rare. It was used in connection with the birth of a king, and it was used in connection with a military victory. The good news of the gospel includes both of these: Christ, the king of kings, was born, but he was born precisely to engage in a battle. To defeat an enemy. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would resemble Joshua, who led the battles that took place in the land of Canaan, and David, who raised Israel to the status of a kingdom. They expected that the Messiah would deliver Israel from Roman occupation and restore Israel's status as a kingdom that subjugates other nations.

Only part of this turned out to be correct. He came to win a battle, but the enemy he came to defeat was the one enemy that man could not defeat, which is sin and its consequence, namely death. This encounter with the devil in the wilderness was the first round of this battle, and the first round goes to Jesus. This entire event is a foreshadowing, a pre-announcement, of his victory over Satan, which will be definitively achieved on Good Friday, and the victory will be announced on Easter Sunday morning.

In this account of the temptation in the desert, there are three distinct temptations, and these three temptations correspond to the temptation in the Garden of Eden, in the third chapter of Genesis at the dawn of creation. We know that this chapter in Genesis is a very rich allegory that contains two layers: the narrative, which is a vehicle for the deeper theological meaning, which is missed when it is taken literally, and so we look for the deeper meaning that underlies this narrative. It begins with the serpent asking the woman: "Did God really say, 'You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden'?" The woman answered: "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.'" But the serpent said to the woman: "You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil." But the verse I'd like to call attention to is the following: "The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom."

Notice that there are three aspects to this temptation, and they correspond to the three different concupiscences mentioned in the first letter of John. Concupiscence in general is one of the effects of Original Sin: it is a tendency to sin, or an inclination to sin and self-seeking. The result of concupiscence is that sin is easy, holiness is difficult. But this single concupiscence divides into three distinct tendencies within us. The first is the concupiscence of the flesh, which is inordinate desire for physical gratification; the second is concupiscence of the eyes, which is inordinate ambition, that is, a disordered tendency to be more than what we are, to exceed the limits of our nature, a rejection of our own limitations, and finally, the pride of life, which is disordered self-esteem, or an inordinate love of our own excellence. All three are there in the garden: she saw that the tree was good for food (corresponding to the disordered love of physical gratification), pleasing to the eyes (which corresponds to disordered ambition), and that the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom (which corresponds to the pride of life) - the Greek word for wisdom is sophia , from which is derived the word 'sophisticated'. Sophistication is really a pseudo-wisdom, that is, a pretense to wisdom. To desire sophistication is not the same as desiring wisdom; it is the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom. Sophistication is more of a pretense rooted in disordered self-estimation.

The woman took some of its fruit and ate it; and she gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate it. In other words, the first parents of the human race chose to taste independence from God, to be their own god, to make themselves the measure of what is true and good. They rejected their status as "child" dependent upon God. And of course, that decision was made for themselves and their future offspring, which is humanity. That original decision has mysteriously altered humanity. Humanity carries these three wounds, these three concupiscences, that have affected human nature. And the 7 capital sins are really a more detailed unfolding of these tendencies: pride and envy having to do with the pride of life; lust, gluttony and sloth having to do with the concupiscence of the flesh, and anger and avarice having to do with the concupiscence of the eyes.

But at the start of his ministry, the Person of Christ, who is the Person of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who has joined to himself a human nature, defeats these three temptations in the desert.

The Desert

The religious significance of the desert is very important at this point. In Scripture, the desert is seen as a land that God has not blessed. The reason is that blessing is benediction: the etymology of the word says a great deal: bene, good, and dicere , an utterance. Benediction is a speaking well of something. The implication is that words have power. The effect of blessing is goodness, which is effusive, and so the effect of blessing is fruitfulness. A blessing is a spoken word that brings about an effect - just as malediction is a counter-blessing, a curse that renders something sterile and lifeless. The desert is without life, without water. To make a land into a desert is to make it like the original chaos, as we find in the creation stories. Creation began with chaos, disorder, lifelessness. This is symbolized in both creation stories by water; for water is a symbol of disorder, death, chaos. Order, time, space, and the goodness of the earth arose out of chaos, but only as a result of God's spoken Word, or His blessing, that is, his benediction: God said: Let there be light, and there was light, God said...and so it was, evening came, morning came, etc.

And so, this moment in the desert is really the announcement of a new creation. A new order is arising out of the earth, an earth that was cursed back in the third chapter of Genesis: God says to the Man: because you have done this, "Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

This victory that belongs to Christ at the very start of his ministry, here in the desert, is an announcement of the dawning of a new creation, a new order, a restoration. It is really the announcement of a new temple, a new house.

My Father's House

The first story of creation is really a depiction of the creation of a house: The Hebrew expression is "my father's house". To build a house requires time, the selection of a place, and then one builds the foundation, after which one furnishes the house, and last to enter are the human occupants of the house. In the first creation story, the first thing to be created is time: God said: Let there be light, and there was light, and of course God separated light from darkness. A very basic reading of this text is that God created time or succession (light and darkness), and so God is not subject to time. But then God creates space; he separates the waters above from the waters below, sky and ocean. And so, God is not subject to the limits of place. And then the waters are gathered so that earth may appear, this is the foundation of the house, and then God furnishes his house with living things, and finally, man enters this house, who is created in the image and likeness of God.

In other words, creation is "My father's house". It is the first temple. In Isaiah, we read: "The heavens are my throne, the earth is my footstool. What house can you build for me?" (66,1).

From the chaos arises a temple, a house, my father's house, creation, which manifests his glory. But man refused to proclaim his glory, but instead made himself his own god. He usurps what belongs first and foremost and finally, to God. A new chaos enters into the world as a result of the sin of Adam, a new desert: "Cursed is the ground because of you. In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, ...For you are dust, and to dust you shall return". That desert, that lifeless chaos, that disorder, is within man himself now, namely, a disorder of the passions, a lack of harmony between the passions and his reason, the inclination to sin and self-seeking. Virtue, which perfects him, is now difficult, and vice, which destroys him, is now easy. He is severely wounded in his nature and needs to be healed, restored, re-created. But to be re-created requires benediction or blessing, a new word to be uttered, which in turn implies the building of a new temple, a new house.

The Power of the Word

I'd like to focus for a moment on this new word, this new blessing; for what is noteworthy here is that Christ defeats the devil through the power of the word, that is, the power of Scripture. His weapons are three passages from Scripture. First, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'" (Deut 8, 30); then 'You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'" (Deut 6, 16); and finally, it is written: 'The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve'" (Deut 6, 13). Ordinary human words are powerful, but the word of God much more so. We know the power of God's word from Isaiah:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall do what pleases me, achieving the end for which I sent it (55, 10).

The words from Scripture that Christ utters in the desert are like rain and snow that water the earth, making it fertile and fruitful. Christ is beginning the work of transforming the chaos and desert of this world, especially the interior desert and internal chaos of our nature, into fertile land from which will spring up the new life of divine grace, the living water that Christ speaks of in the gospel of John: "Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: 'Rivers of living water will flow from within him'" (Jn 7, 38).

God's word is benediction; it is blessing. It does not return until it accomplishes what it set out to accomplish, and so this desert is becoming a new house, a temple, in which its inhabitants will have within them the capacity and desire to live on every word that comes from the mouth of God; and that capacity is divine grace, a participation in the divine life, which was lost through the first sin. The desert of this world will be a kingdom in which God is not put to the test, like a hypothesis that is tested according to our own limited standards of plausibility, but a kingdom in which the sense of the divine has been restored (sensus divinitatis), that familiarity with God that was lost as a result of the first sin. The gentle breeze that describes the presence of God in the garden will no longer be interpreted as a threat, all as a result of man's guilty conscience, but can be interpreted and felt as He really is, a gentle breeze in the cool of the day, all as a result of the forgiveness of sins. And the desert of this world will become a kingdom in which God alone is worshipped and made the center. In fact, that kingdom is already there in the Person of Christ, and he demonstrates this by his victory over the Evil One in the desert.

This entire episode in the desert is testimony to the power of Scripture and the importance of feeding on Scripture daily. To open oneself to the word of God in Scripture is to open oneself to the divine benediction. We allow the word of God to descend into the soil of our very self, rendering our soul fruitful and full of life. And as teachers, it testifies to the importance of immersing our students in Scripture, to help them become familiar with the Scriptures, and to become acquainted with the power of the word of God. The bible is not like any other book; there is something radically different about it. It has a power that no other piece of writing possesses, because it is "benediction".

The Kingdom of God

The kingdom of God is at the heart of Christ's preaching. I think it is so important to return to this, especially in the schools. The reason is that the proclamation of the kingdom of God has in large part been reduced to a Utopia, as if the gospel is a call to build a kingdom of justice here on earth. But building a just civil society is really the purpose of politics, and the science of politics studies the best way to achieve that end. And so, what happens is the kingdom of God is quickly reduced to a kingdom of this world, contrary to what Christ himself says to Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here (Jn 18, 36). After the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, the people wanted to take him and declare him king, but Jesus knew their hearts, he knew that what they really wanted was a Messiah who would deliver Israel from Roman occupation and restore Israel to its former status, not a Messiah who would deliver humanity from the slavery of sin and death. And so, he slipped away from them. The very first words out of Christ's mouth after the temptation in the wilderness were: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." The extraordinarily good news, the evangelion, is the establishment of the kingdom of God over and against the kingdom of darkness. It is the triumph of the new creation over the second chaos introduced by the first sin.

The kingdom of darkness that Christ came to defeat is both a visible and an invisible kingdom; its origin is invisible; its effects are visible in human sinfulness manifest in history. Its effects are death, and the loss of the sense of the divine, that is, a loss of divine grace, and concupiscence. Christ came to reverse this, and he reverses this in his Incarnation, death, and resurrection. By his Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity joins our humanity to his divinity. The signs of the impending defeat of the kingdom of darkness occur almost immediately in the gospels, beginning with the overcoming of temptation in the desert, but they continue in the miracles Christ worked, the nature miracles in which he reveals his dominion over nature (nature's obedience to his commands) and his dominion over death, for example by raising a 12 year old girl from the dead, raising Lazarus from the dead, and the explicit forgiveness of others' sins, which scandalized a number of the Pharisees.

The kingdom of God as well is both a visible and an invisible kingdom. Its origin is invisible; but it is a kingdom that is in history; its effects are visible in the holiness of the faithful, especially in the lives of the saints; and its effects are the opposite of the effects of Original Sin: namely, the resurrection, and the new life of divine grace, which brings with it a restored sense of the divine, and the ability to rise above our inclination to sin and pursue holiness and the love of virtue. The kingdom of God is in the world like yeast in the dough, spreading its influence; and it develops in history, like a mustard seed. And it is like a treasure in a field that someone finds and when he finds it, sells everything he owns and buys that field. That kingdom becomes the very center of his life.

The Living Temple

And so, there are three temples in the history of salvation. When driving out the money changers, Jesus refers to the temple of Jerusalem as "my Father's house". If the temple is "my Father's house", then there are three. In the first creation story, God is depicted as building a house, as was mentioned. He creates the time, the space, builds the foundation, and begins to furnish that house. In other words, the order of creation is His temple, His dwelling place. The rich complexity of the universe, its order and intelligibility, its size beyond our ability to imagine or conceive, its goodness and beauty, all in its entirety is a hymn: the hymn of the universe, a song of praise, glorifying God (Teilhard). The second temple is of course the temple of Jerusalem, according to the Jews, His dwelling place, the most sacred part of which is the Holy of Holies. And finally, Jesus refers to his own body as the true temple, the new holy of holies: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again". John tells us that "he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken."

That temple, his body, becomes ours through the Eucharist. Each time we receive Christ's body in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we become his body, his temple. We become his "father's house", his dwelling place. And that's what we bring into the classroom every day. That's how we evangelize. A number of my students at Niagara were worried about the very idea of evangelization. In their minds, they are not trained religion teachers, but are trained science teachers, math teachers, English, social science, etc. They don't feel they have the ability to preach. But that's the beauty of this. They don't need to get "preachy". They don't need to try to convert anyone. All they have to do is be that temple, the temple of his body. This is the great dignity that is ours, called by Christ to be teachers of youth. We are given the inconceivably unique and noble privilege of being a living temple for our students. Without the kids knowing it necessarily, they are brought into the vicinity of the new temple precincts - if we have become that temple, that body of Christ, by our devotion, our prayer life, and our frequent reception of the Eucharist. The effect that will have on the lives of these students is simply beyond our ability to conceive.

The effects ripple through history in ways that are beyond us, and that's how we are called to build up the kingdom of God. But it is important to note that the kingdom of God is not something we bring about. We are nothing but instruments; we're not the builders. As the psalm says: "Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor" (Ps 127). The fullness of the kingdom of God, its achievement, is something that only Christ will bring about in the end, not us. What this means is that it is beyond our power to bring about "peace on earth". To claim otherwise is a form of Pelagianism. Christ alone will take our labors, like a builder takes wood, steal, glass, and cement, and he will form them into the beautiful structure that will house the divine presence for eternity. This is not something we can achieve.

The only way our work can become a fitting and useful instrument of Christ's labor is if our work is the work of one who has become Christ, who has become his temple, who has become a new creation in him. Outside of him, there will be no peace and no justice in this world. A just world outside of Christ is a Utopian dream. Nothing more. The good news of the gospel cannot be understood except against the background of the bad news of human sin, both personal and Original. The message of the gospel is a message of salvation. Christ is Savior. Christ is king. Christ is the new temple, and it is a living temple that metabolizes all who enter into it. In him, we become living temples. That's how our students encounter Christ. I think it was William J. Toms who said: "Be careful how you live, for you may be the only bible some person ever reads". Without that encounter with Christ, whether it is explicit or not, all the rules and moral precepts we dish out to them will mean very little. Only when a person encounters Christ will the rules and precepts and commandments begin to mean something. But the tremendous opportunity that is ours, as teachers, is that we can be the means through which the students encounter Christ. It is the teacher who is called to give benediction, to give the blessing, by giving their students good words, by teaching the scriptures, teaching the faith that is the very life and joy of the teacher. The teacher has to allow himself, herself, to be embraced by the Truth that Christ is, and let that truth pour out of themselves. It is in this way that they bless their students, that they impart benediction. It's not about being nice; it's not about having a prayer table in every classroom of the school; it is about the Eucharist and the regular feeding on the word of God, becoming Christ, becoming that living flame and walking the halls of the school, among the students, praying with your students, bringing the sacred into the secular.

But we cannot give what we don't have. So, if you don't think you got it, do it anyways. Fake it until you make it, as they say. I'm thinking of the actor Dolores Hart, who played St. Clare of Assisi in the 1962 version of the Life of St. Francis. In playing that role, she entered into the life of prayer, acting it out, and it started to affect her. Eventually, she became a nun. She put her soul into playing that role and something happened. On the days you don't feel like praying, put yourself into it anyways. Something will happen.

Part of the joy of heaven will be that we will see just how much we have influenced the world as a whole through the influence we have had in the small classrooms entrusted to us, how much of a part we have played in the establishment of Christ's kingdom, in a way which was hidden from us, but effective, just as God is effective but hidden behind the disguise of a servant, the humble suffering servant of Isaiah, the king of kings whose crown was a crown of thorns and whose throne was the wood of the cross. He feeds us with his body that was given up for us, the new and everlasting temple, so that we may become that living tabernacle.