When Heartfelt Zeal Becomes Ritual Routine

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Year B) – Exodus 20:1-17 or 20:1-3, 7-8, 1; Psalms 19:8, 9, 10, 11; First Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25. This series appears each Wednesday.

Photography © by Andy Coan

Fresh and New

When it started, all was fresh and new.  An unnamed but mighty God freed a motley crew of slaves and offered them a new way of life in a new land.  Most importantly, he offered them a privileged and exclusive relationship with Himself.

In the ancient world, most nations worshiped their own god and believed themselves to have a special claim on his favor.  The Greeks had Zeus and the Canaanites, Ba’al, for instance.  But this was different.  This mysterious God called himself “I AM who AM” and apparently tolerated no rivals.  He had beaten the Egyptian gods on their own turf and appeared ready to take his new people into Ba’al’s territory.  None of the other gods required any special behavior, just sacrificial worship.  This new one required fidelity to a code of conduct that reached into every department of life, not just the religious.  No area was off limits to the claims of this God – economics, family life, even sexuality.  If Israel wanted this special relationship, they had to accept the stamp of his ownership on every aspect of their existence.  That was the real meaning of the Ten Commandments, this Sunday’s first reading.

Ritual Routine

But what began with heartfelt zeal ultimately became ritual routine.  The code of the covenant had called for animal sacrifices and a special place to carry them out.  The devotion of David desired a fitting place for God’s house.  The resourcefulness of his shrewd son Solomon made the dream a reality.  After the Babylonians destroyed it, it was rebuilt in tears, a shadow of its former self.  Then a powerful king came along who saw an opportunity to make the temple once again the pride of God’s people.  He rebuilt it in even greater glory.  But it was more a monument to himself than to God.  After all, he cared little for God, and was not even himself a full-blooded Jew.  He was rather a cold-blooded murderer whose name will forever live in infamy – Herod the Great.

How about the religious leaders of Herod’s day?  Religion had become for them a business.  Animals were needed for sacrifice, so they were sold in the temple precincts.  Hebrew shekels were needed for the payment of the temple tax, so moneychangers were conveniently available so people could exchange their Roman money for the appropriate Jewish coinage.

The prophet Malachi (3:1-5) had predicted that the Lord would suddenly come to his temple to deal with such things.  And Zechariah (14:21) had foretold that on the day of the Lord, there would no longer be any merchant in the temple precincts.

So when Jesus overturned the money changers’ tables, he was fulfilling Scripture and making clear that the messianic time of fulfillment was at hand.  No more business as usual.  No more ho-hum approach to religion.  It was now time for living faith, not just religious belief.  Zeal for God’s house consumed him, and he had come to light the fire of zeal in us as well.

Time for a gut-check

Lent provides for us an opportunity for a gut-check.  Has our religion become cold routine, a mere collection of intellectual convictions and external rituals as with the scribes and Pharisees?  Is our piety more a monument to ourselves than to God, as in the case of Herod?  Is Christ crucified for us the power and the wisdom of God, or just a plaster figure hanging on the wall?

The story of Jesus and the moneychangers comes at the beginning of the Gospel of John.  From the very outset of his public ministry, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection to his uncomprehending audience.  It would be his self-sacrifice that would ultimately lead to a new beginning.  And to prepare for that event, he cleaned house.

As we prepare for the celebration of the mystery of redemption, it is time for us too to clean house and to honor his self-sacrifice with authentic sacrifices of our own.

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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