In the parish the size of ours, it is not uncommon for our large gathering space to be full of groups selling stuff or seeking to recruit folks for a program. This is never more true than at Advent, when one year groups had to be shuffled into the parish hall (less than prime real estate to say the least) because in the plaza we had Knights selling books, teens selling cookies, Scouts selling wreaths, Fair Trade people selling coffee… you get the picture. If not managed fairly, the intersection of all these groups competing for fundraising dollars can get ugly. For the most part, our fabulous facilities coordinator handles it all with grace and heads off the greatest points of conflict at the pass. Once in a while, though, on a heavy fundraising weekend, I hear a comment from a parishioner that invokes the Gospel account of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The argument goes like this: since Jesus drove out the money changers from the Temple, he would be most unpleased with us for having stuff for sale in our plaza after Mass.
That’s not my read of the scripture. Yes, we need to manage pleas for cash so that people don’t get weary and so that we don’t lose our focus on Christ. But, truth be told, at our church, the sellers are not in the church at all, but outside it. And some kids selling pastries to try and get to World Youth Day, or some vendors selling olive wood carvings to support persecuted Christians in the Holy Land are a far cry from usurers and cheats.
So, if Jesus is not commenting on my parish’s fundraising pursuits, what’s with the whips and overturned tables? Is Jesus just having a bad day or what? On my latest reading of this passage, in John, I was caught by Jesus’ admonishment: “Stop making my Father’s house a place of business” (2:16). It made me think. Regardless of what is being sold outside of Mass, how many times have I made Mass itself a kind of exchange of goods and services?
Isn’t that what we are doing when we go there looking to “get something out of Mass”? Or when we subtly sit in the pew as if we are somehow doing God a favor? How about the times when we demand answers to our prayers like a three year old in the toy aisle at Target? I state these so bluntly not to try and shame anyone, but to wake myself from these attitudes that sometimes creep into my own piety. As Americans, we are used to being customers, consumers who give our buck to get a good or service. I think we have to work hard to not allow that to taint how we see God and how we see the means by which that God becomes present to us: the Mass.
What is Mass after all, but a sacrifice? All religions in the world before the modern era involved some sort of sacrifice for the expiation of sin. People understood that in the face of the Guy who made the earth and who decides if the mix of sunshine and rain will be right to grow enough food so they didn’t die, they didn’t quite measure up. Sacrifice of some kind was needed to try and bridge that gap between us and Him. And that is what the Mass is… with a very major twist. In Mass, that God of the Universe himself is the sacrifice, offered so that we could not just approach him but consume him as bread.
So, it follows that Jesus, after turning over the tables, shifts the conversation to the temple of his body (Jn 2:21). The Temple of the Jews, 46 years in the making, was a magnificent splendor in which to behold God’s presence and to worship him. But it was not the last word. Now, we worship at the altar where God himself is the sacrifice. Jesus’ Body and Blood is offered to the Father, and to us as food. Which, frankly, makes “what do I get out of it” question suddenly seem kind of shallow. What I “get” is a participation in the life of God. Salvation. And what I am asked to give in return is not my butt on a pew for 50 minutes once a week, but my whole life. My whole self.
So, the next time your peaceful exit from Mass is interrupted by some well meaning parish group trying to get you to support their cause, let it remind you that inside the Church, the transaction involves stakes that are infinitely higher.
Copyright 2010 Libby DuPont