We hear from the “prophets of the return” this week. They had a message for Israel 2,500 years ago about rebuilding the house of the Lord, and they also speak to us today.
Israel had spent 70 years in exile. It was a national religious calamity. But they also understood the Exile as a just punishment for a deep and sustained pattern of sin: they had failed to observe the covenant with God. Now, deeply repentant, Israel was returning from exile. And their task was clear: rebuild the house of the Lord, the Temple in Jerusalem.
They had been slowed by external foes: the Samaritans tried to stop them and got government help in doing so. They had been slowed by obstacles in their own hearts: discouragement and lethargy had sapped their determination. When the project stalled, God sent the prophets Ezra and Haggai and Zechariah to reignite them for the task.
In our own way, we face a similar task today. In the face of the national religious calamity of sexual abuse and cover-up, we have the task of rebuilding the house of the Lord. Yes, it’s more of a spiritual task than a physical one. But that fits an old pattern. The Old Testament focused on physical circumcision, while the New Testament focuses on the spiritual circumcision of belief. The Old Testament focused on the physical promised land of Israel, while the New Testament focuses on the spiritual promised land of heaven. The Old Testament focused on physical sacrifice, while the New Testament focuses on the spiritual sacrifice of an upright heart. God brought Israel back from physical exile in Babylon, while Jesus offers us freedom from the spiritual exile of sin and death.
So, what kind of spiritual rebuilding is needed today?
Yes, in the first place, new structures of accountability are needed. The Church has been working on those for the last 20 years, which has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of sexual abuse cases. That has strengthened the Church.
Yes, more work needs to be done, with new structures of accountability for bishops. That work is in process, and it will strengthen the Church.
But something deeper is needed, too: a spiritual renewal of each of us.
Perhaps St. Caesarius of Arles put it best when he said while celebrating the dedication of a church building: “We must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul (with sin). Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul not be in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us.”
In the wake of the national religious calamity of sexual abuse and cover up, good, important, necessary work is being done to rebuild the Church on the level of policy. But if the Church is really going to be rebuilt in a way that meets the needs of our time, it can’t just be work that someone else does. It has to be a spiritual rebuilding that involves each and every one of us because, ultimately, we’re the living stones of the Church.