The Recovery of Sacred Things

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25

“When is the last time you were alone — really alone — and how did it feel?”  I asked a room full of teenagers.  They discussed the answer amongst themselves.  I crouched down into a conversation between a few boys and repeated the question.  “I don’t actually know,” one of them said.  “I can’t remember.”  Teenagers reportedly fill nine hours a day with various forms of media.  They’re not alone in their priorities.  Netflix released their 2017 viewing statistics, and 109 million members across 190 countries stream 140 million hours a day.

For me personally, the trouble lies with scrolling through the popular photo app Instagram.  Even there — where content provides no more than a quick visual hit — users average 24 to 32 minutes a day, depending on their age demographic.  Are we captured in awe and wonder by beauty and good story telling?  Or are we addicted to the physiological high that media consumption gives?  The story is much more complex, of course. But recent media studies and statistics reveal our priorities: allocating a large amount of time to passive entertainment through our screens.

In many ways, this Sunday’s Scripture readings are about priorities.  In the first reading, Moses receives the Ten Commandments.  Unlike most catechism quizzes and courthouse statues, Moses didn’t receive these
entirely as a nice, neat list.  The long form of the First Reading shows a much more robust treatment of the first three commandments.  God reminds the Israelites of their deliverance from Egypt, warns them about the
construction of idols, appeals to the Genesis narrative of creation, gives very specific details for the keeping of the Sabbath, and promises “mercy to the thousandth generation on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  It is clear that — more than a specific list of do’s and don’ts — God is first concerned with keeping sacred things sacred.

This emphasis is driven home in the Gospel passage.  The temple in Jerusalem provided the chance to turn a profit by selling sacrificial animals to pilgrims.  The local merchants took advantage of it, setting up shop in
the temple itself.  Jesus immediately recognizes the misplaced priorities.  Rather than honoring the sacredness of the temple as an opportunity to better one’s relationship with God, it had become an opportunity to better their financial situation.

As Catholic Christians, we recognize that the present moment is an opportunity for an encounter with God.   As St. Thérèse of Lisieux put it, “everything is grace.”  In stewardship spirituality, we see our daily moments and personal talents as gifts from God.  We can hoard them selfishly, or we can surrender them back to God allowing His grace to be alive in us.

There’s nothing wrong with time spent on media.  Artistic TV and film can draw us into sacred truths about the human experience.  Beautiful images or compelling stories can inspire us to travel some place new, pick up a different hobby, or cook a meal we never thought of before.  These elements, however, have something in common. They draw us out of ourselves.  Obsessive consumption of anything does the opposite; it pulls us inward.

If we’re not looking up and out, we might miss something.  In the second reading, St. Paul emphasizes that the movement of God is unexpected.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.”  This Lenten season, we consider our own spiritual habits.  Have we become desensitized to the sacred?  Do we treat the passion and death of Jesus as one more re-run in our “watch list”?  Does it retain the awe and wonder it once had?

When the moneychangers had been scattered, once the braying alarm of the loosened cattle had settled down, we can imagine the temple might have been oddly silent.  The next visitors had the benefit of a sacred
place restored.  It was likely much easier to remember the first commandment — that God is God.

By virtue of our baptism, our lives are sacred things.  You, too, are a sacred place.  Your time, your interactions, your silent moments … these are all sacred opportunities.  So this week, put down the screen.  Turn off the
streaming platform.  Put your phone on airplane mode the hour or two before bed and don’t switch it back immediately in the morning.  Replace that time with a little silence.  Open your Bible to the Scriptures.  Take a
walk.  Attend a weekday Mass and linger in prayer afterwards.  Remember the gift of wonder.  Let yourself be surprised by the sacred.

Anna Carter