07 Mar 2021

St. Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 7 March 2021

Jacob and Wilhelm were brothers, renowned scholars in philology and lexicography, and authorities on the Indo-European language from which the languages of the continent and the sub-continent evolved. They wrote learned works on these matters, doubtless well-known to the faculty and students of the Catholic Institute of Sydney. But most of us know them better by their collection of over 200 German folk stories, Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812).

The brothers Grimm were worried that the folklore of old Germany was in danger of being lost and so they collected together such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin and the rest. Some of these tales were more overtly Christian than others, such as St Joseph in the Forest and The Blessed Virgin’s Little Glass.

One such tale is of Brother Lustig, an ex-soldier whom St Peter gives a knapsack with the power to materialise within it whatever the owner wishes were there. After many adventures in which the backpack saves him, Br Lustig grows old and knows his time has come. So he asks an old hermit the way to eternal life and is told there is a broad and pleasant path to Hell or a rough and difficult path to Heaven. Given his nature to date we are unsurprised when Lustig chooses the easy path. But on arrival he finds Hell’s gate tight shut, because the Devil fears he will wish all the demons into the knapsack. Lustig turns around and takes the narrow way to Heaven. On arrival his old friend St Peter also refuses him entry, for he knows all too well that Lustig’s life has not prepared him for that happy place. But in a manner typical of fairy tales, Br Lustig tricks St Peter into taking his bag back, and then wishes himself inside it, thus getting into heaven.

Well, you’re probably thinking that’s a very German story and hoping Sr Isabell will explain it later! But like all good fairy tales it tells us things about our human nature and circumstances. Br Lustig thinks it’s enough to trick your way into heaven, as if it doesn’t matter how and why you got in. Many of the faithful of Jesus’ day took a similar approach to the Temple: they got through the doors by offering coins and pigeons, but did little more about making themselves ready for the earthly sanctuary of God, let alone the heavenly one.

The Cleansing of the Temple by Francesco Boneri, 1610, Gemäldegalerie Berlin

The Cleansing of the Temple by Francesco Boneri, 1610, Gemäldegalerie Berlin

In today’s Gospel (Jn 2:13-25) Jesus will have no more of this fairy-tale trickery, such as changing coins without changing heart or offering pigeons without offering yourself as well. Those who’ve got through the gates of the Temple have turned it into a Westfield, a place of banking and cheating, market stalls and politics – anything other than prayer and self-sacrifice. Driving them out with whip of cord, Jesus rages “Get all this out of here! Stop desecrating my Father’s house!”

Well, here at St Mary’s Cathedral we have tap-n-go to assist people to give in the cashless economy and COVID-safe environ-ment. But you’ll find no currency exchange, no doves on sale and, I trust, no notion that we can buy our way into heaven, let alone trick our way in, or that we can merit it with anything less than giving all our hearts and praying with all our souls. Yet we are not exempt from the Lord’s wrathful warning: “Don’t turn God’s temple into a bazaar.” But which temple? St Paul taught that Christians are God’s temples even more than the ones made of stone (1Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; cf. 2Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). “Human beings themselves are the temple where God’s gifts are asked for and received,” St Augustine comments, “The gift of eternal life is only granted to those who pray at the Temple of God… who pray in harmony with the Church, in the unity of the body of Christ, which consists of the multitude of believers throughout the whole world.” (On the Psalms, 130)

But surely, we might say, those in the Temple in today’s Gospel were praying, whether in the sanctuary of their own hearts or amidst the glory of Israel’s great basilica? All the currency exchange and commerce in animals was rather unseemly, for sure, but wasn’t it in a good cause, as a way of praying?

Well, yes and no. Some in Jesus’ day thought it was enough to fulfil the technicalities of the law, to contribute the right amount, sacrifice the right animals and say the right words; like the story of Brother Lustig, there was an almost magical quality to all this, as if God’s favour could be bought or forced. “You hypocrites!” Jesus said on another occasion, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me’.” (Mt 15:8; Isa 29:13) “Even in the body of Christ,” St. Augustine noted, “people can be found who have only their own interests at heart, not those of Jesus Christ.”

St John ends today’s account of the Cleansing of the Temple by observing that many believed in Jesus because of His miracles, “but Jesus knew them all and did not trust Himself to them.” John doesn’t say Jesus knew they were only pretending to believe; they genuinely believed, but then even the Devil believes in God (cf. Jas 2:19). The demons know very well who Jesus is and of what He is capable, as is made clear in the Gospels (Mt 4:1-11 et par; Mk 1:34; 5:7,10; Lk 4:34,41; 8:28,31). But that’s not enough. True belief in Christ means loving Him, with the kind of love that changes us, makes us want to give Him not just a coin or pigeon but our all; not just to buy or trick our way into the sanctuary of the Lord, but to so unite ourselves with Him that we become part of His body the Church, the sanctuary that will be raised up with Him to heaven at the last.

Later in John’s Gospel Jesus will return to the Temple for another Passover. That time around it will be the sanctuary of His body that is whipped with cords and then destroyed. Holy Week is already on the horizon, the crowds already rehearsing their calls to crucify Him. We’re half-way through Lent: in the little time left, let’s have a good look round the temple of our souls. Let’s cast out all materialism and bargaining with God, all superstition and magical notions of God also. Let’s rededicate our souls in time for Easter, as a market no more but the Father’s house.

At the Catholic Institute of Sydney seminarians, religious and lay students are prepared intellectually for lives dedicated to that power and wisdom of which Paul spoke in our Epistle (1Cor 1:22-25), to finding that narrow path described in our fairly-tale and in the Gospels (cf. Mt 7:13-14). Drawing ever-nearer to Christ in study and contemplation is a more difficult way to wisdom and heaven than any fairy-tale shortcuts, but a surer way also. To all those beginning a new year of learning, teaching and research, I echo the prayer of our Psalm (Ps 18(19)): that through your studies your souls will be revived, your mind’s-eyes enlightened, your hearts gladdened. God bless the Catholic Institute of Sydney!

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the Third Sunday of Lent. Today we mark the opening of the 2021 Academic Year for the Catholic Institute of Sydney. I acknowledge concelebrating with me from the Institute: Rev. Dr Gerard Kelly, Very Rev. Peter Williams VG, Rev. Dr Luke Holohan SM and Rev. Daniele Russo; from the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, the Rector Very Rev. Michael de Stoop, Rev. Simon Kitimbo, Rev. John Armstrong and Rev. Arthur Givney; from the Redemptoris Mater seminary Rev. Marlon Henao Perez; from St John Vianney Seminary College in Wagga Wagga, the Vice-Rector Rev. Sean Byrnes; and brother priests.

I salute from the Sydney College of Divinity Professor Diane Speed and from the Catholic Institute of Sydney the President, Sister Professor Isabell Naumann ISSM; the Deputy President and Academic Dean, Dr Rohan Curnow; with Members of the Senate, faculty, staff and students of CIS, including our beloved seminarians.

From our sister academic institutions I greet Professor Hayden Ramsay, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University and Professor Renee Kohler-Ryan, National Head of the School of Philosophy and Theology in the University of Notre Dame. I also welcome the Mayor of Strathfield, Councillor Antoine Doueihi in whose municipality the Catholic Institute is situated.

To everyone present, whether physically or virtually, a very warm welcome as we join Jesus on His Lenten journey to the cross and resurrection.