What makes a house of God?

The following is a homily from the fourth Sunday of Advent by Deacon Br. Simon Baker. 

One of the most consistent refrains of human desire, dating all the way back to the very first two people to walk the earth, is the desire to be close to God, of being next to him, of just being in his vicinity. But the problem is, we don’t always pursue this in a healthy way. Adam and Eve tried grasping at the tree, the Babylonians built a tower to siege heaven, and we often set up our ladders of pride and climb to the top rung in the name of self-esteem and self-sufficiency. 

And then there’s David. In his desire to be near God he says, “I’m going to build God a house. He travels with us in a tent, but I’m going to build him a solid house where he can live with us permanently. It’s going to be huge, and fancy, with the best acacia wood money can buy.”  David never got to build this Temple, but his son Solomon did, and they say its beauty would take your breath away - especially its first construction before it was destroyed in the Babylonian Exile and subsequently rebuilt under King Cyrus.

This is us too is it not? When we, like David, think of building God a house we think grand scale with lots of ornate carvings, fancy columns, paintings, statues, the whole nine. In fact, these are the kinds of Churches we admire most of all, the big ones, the basilicas, the National Shrine in DC, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, you name it. We think, “God is big and great and beautiful, so his house should be big and great and beautiful.” Sometimes I hear monks lament the abbey Church they could have had, or in some cases used to have. There’s a monk at Saint Meinrad who, when he gives tours, always gives a tour of the old Church, two renovations ago. “We used to have a balcony here. The choir stalls used to look like this…” And how many of us have looked with a tinge disappointment at the original sketch of what our own Abbey Church was intended to look like? So it’s worth asking the question, “Does God think like us? Does God have the same taste in his dwellings that we do?”

I once read a story about this rundown Cathedral that was in just terrible shape. The floors were covered in dirt, the walls had water damage, the pillars were all rotted out, there was very dim lighting which made it hard to see anything, it was ugly. But the Bishop who presided in that Cathedral was Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. His Cathedral…the prison camp of Phu Khanh where he lived for 13 years. His parishioners sent him a small bottle of wine for Mass labeled his “medicine” and they hid hosts inside of a flashlight to protect them from the guards and from the humidity. He describes his Church in this way:

In the re-education camp we were divided into groups of fifty people; we slept on a common bed, and everyone had a right to 50 centimeters of space. At 9:30 we had to turn off lights and everyone had to go to sleep. It was then I would bow over the bed to celebrate Mass by heart…with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand. This was my altar and this was my cathedral!...I distributed communion by passing my hand under the mosquito net. We even made little sacks from the paper of cigarette packs to preserve the Most Holy Sacrament and bring it to others. The Eucharistic Jesus was always with me in my shirt pocket….Everyone knew that Jesus was in their midst. At night, the prisoners would take turns for adoration. 

Now that is a beautiful Church is it not?! Not for the rotted out wood or the dirt floors, but for the prisoner’s devotion and their faith. 

The Christmas cave (which is what the stable actually was, a cave) was like this prison. It too had dirt floors and dim lighting, but within this ugly house was born the light who “was coming into the world,” the “daystar” of the O antiphons. God chooses to dwell in these places! There are in the world big fancy church buildings where the architecture is the only thing that is beautiful because those who attend services there come without faith or devotion. But there are prison camps and caves of shocking beauty because those who worship there do so with minds and hearts and voices attuned in adoration of the God who became man to dwell in our midst.

When God has a chance to build his own Temple, what kind of Temple does he build? He doesn’t build a huge and beautiful building, he doesn’t concern himself with masterful frescoes, but he “builds” a lowly and humble woman. She is not ornate, or dressed in “peals set in gold.” But she is pure in heart and pure in spirit, she is faithful and follows the laws of God which mean “more to her than silver and gold” and “are sweeter than honey in the mouth.” 

The event captured in this Gospel is the pivotal and foundational moment when everything changes, when God says something new. We desire to be near God, and in this striking encounter between Mary and Gabriel we see that God shares this desire! He wants to be close to us! David only wanted to build a house for God to dwell in our midst because that is the greatest thing he could conceive of; he could not imagine a closer union than living next to God. But God comes to Mary and shows that living next to is not enough for him!

Listen to Gabriel’s very words, “the Lord is with you.” Already…the Lord already is with Mary, even before her Fiat. Because of her purity, perfection, and holiness the Lord is already with her in an intangible way. But that is not enough! He wants, not to live next to her and be her neighbor, but to live within her and be her child! 

And thanks to her, it becomes the same for us. God is not satisfied with living next to us as a neighbor down the hall. Through the Eucharist He wants us to be his dwelling, his Temple. The infinite God, the maker of the heavens and the earth, who brought existence from non-existence, whom the heavens cannot contain, for whom 14 billion light-years of space is too small…this God wants to come to us and make his home with us, not just with us but IN us.

Do not fall into the trap thinking you must first make a suitable dwelling for him to enter into, but rather his entering in makes it a suitable dwelling! The prison did not first become a Cathedral before God would enter. He comes right in the midst of all the dirt, and makes his home there.

“Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof [that is, come into my dwelling], but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Lord, we are not worthy; nor will we ever be. But come to us anyway, and we will give you rest.