14 November 2008

God Alone is Holy

[Look! An actual homily posted on an actual homily blog. . .]

Dedication of St John Lateran: Ez 47.1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Cor 3.9-11, 16-17; John 2.13-22
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

You can’t live in Rome and fail to appreciate the power of buildings. Going every morning for my bowl of coffee, I see the Coliseum. On the way to my daily ablutions, I see the monument to King Victor Emmanuel II. Walking around Rome is an exercise in deciphering and glorying in the human desire for permanence on a grand scale—basilicas, churches, government offices, museums, piazzas, roads. However, each time I see the Coliseum and the Victor Emmanuel, I see resting between them what is left of the ancient Roman Forum, the heart and soul of a vast Empire, toppled and of little use now to anyone but tourists, archaeology grad students, and Rome’s ubiquitous sea gulls. What we build to mark our place and time—no matter how grand, how strong, how beautiful—it all begins to fade the moment we conceive it. The inevitable push and pull of seasons and tides wears the best carved stone and wearies the mightiest body of memory. No building of brick and mortar, or mere flesh and blood, or thought and deed can hold against the inevitability of eventual failure. Yet, we press our footprints in the sand and console ourselves believing that we have marked time and space with an indelible impression. What is holy endures forever. And only God Himself is holy.

If this is true, why does Paul insist on calling God’s human creatures “holy buildings”? He writes, “You are God’s building […] Do you not know that you are the temple of God […]?” Is Paul suggesting here that as rational creatures of God, His human temples, we will never fade, never crumble? Is he suggesting that because we are somehow unique in creation, we are preserved from eventual collapse? No, not exactly. We are thinking, roving tabernacles. We are shrines to a loving, living God. But these truths do not protect us from the wear of time and the inevitability of death and decay. We crack, weaken, become unleveled; we often spring leaks, break beams, rot from within. Paul’s point seems to be that though we decline with the seasons, our creation as privileged foci of the Spirit embodied strengthens our structural integrity with the promise of a divine renovation, a godly restoration that returns our curled and muted image back to the Original, back to Him Who made us.

Only what is holy endures forever. And God alone is holy. But we can share in His holiness. Though our monuments of stone dissolve over time, we can endure forever when we place everything we are in the care and control of the Father. Stepping into His loving providence, we step into His divine life, the surest preservation and renovation of creation. When Jesus runs the moneychangers out of the temple courtyard, the Jews object and ask for a sign to explain his rebuke. He retorts, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Imagine the incredulity on the faces of those who hear this incredible claim. Destroy the temple!? And you, one man, will rebuild it in just three days!? Unbelievable. Impossible. It took hundreds of men over forty-six years to build the temple and he wants them to believe that one man can rebuild it in three days. Not so incredible, or at least, not incredible in the way that the Jews think. John adds, “But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.”

What is the “temple of his Body”? Paul writes to the Corinthians, “You are God’s building…Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Christ was destroyed on the Cross. And raised in three days. The Church, the Body of Christ, will be destroyed and raised at the resurrection. You and I, temples of the Spirit, will suffer death, be destroyed, and raised again. Even though we are pulled apart by time and tide, suffer defeat in disease and decay, even though we succumb to accident and natural evil, in the end, we prevail. But we do not prevail on merit, or hard work, or by divine reward. We prevail by the gift of everlasting life freely given by God; He alone is holy. He alone defeats death. He alone brings new life from an ancient evil.

Our greatest efforts to leave behind us written monuments and chiseled temples falter and fail. Our best attempts to carve an indestructible message into the bark of the universe falter and fail. They falter and eventually fail because we ourselves are impermanent signposts, fading signs of an evolving creation. We could surrender to despair, or embrace the nihilism of our inevitable but temporary defeat. Many do. Those who do fail twice. They surrender to the impermanence of impermanence; that is, they give themselves over to the fleeting defeat of natural ends, and they neglect the gift of everlasting life freely given by the One Who is Holiness Himself. Everything we design, build, write, compose, paint, think, everything an impermanent creature creates will itself be impermanent. Political systems, grand philosophies, religious institutions, scientific knowledge—all will wane and pass away. Immaculately kept gardens, meticulously collected and maintained libraries and museums—all will find their decay. Perfectly sculpted gym bodies, surgically perfected faces and behinds, genetically altered DNA and sex-selected children—all will die. Only the temples of God will prevail in the end.

Does this mean that we are being foolish in pursuing created beauty? No, not so long as that beauty is understood as a creation of an impermanent creature. Given to the glory of God, created beauty is a form of prayer, a supplication and oblation to Beauty Himself. But it is an ordinary thing for that beauty to fail. Its ultimate passing should be celebrated as a sign of God’s singular holiness, a clue to the mystery of our life everlasting. To the degree that we participate in the Divine Life as gifted creatures, we are the most beautiful of all beings. The fact that we will pass away into natural death and rise again to a supernatural life must form us as children of God, shape our understanding of ourselves as creatures dependent on a Creator. We will be God but not without God.

God alone is holy. God alone brings us freely to His holiness. God alone builds the permanence of our lives after this life. God alone raises us up and places us at His table, our places reserved by His only Son, Jesus Christ. God alone makes all things holy.


  1. [Look! An actual homily posted on an actual homily blog. . .]


    which I will actually read! just not right now.

    what would it take to fix the recorder thingy??

  2. Speaking of ancient Rome -- and seeing as you're there anyway -- you have heard of the new Google Earth virtual version of Ancient Rome as of 320 AD, haven't you?

    Oh, and what do you mean by a bowl of coffee? You must be one wired friar! :)

  3. so why then, do we strive for some permanence in this world? why do we create traditions hoping they will continue after we're gone, or place tombstones marking the last spot we held on earth?

    after all, we are only here for a season. each of us individually, and all of humanity as a whole.

    it's like our whole mindset is focused on "making our mark" ... should we rather focus on "enlarging God's mark in the time that we're given"???

    just wondering.

  4. Mom, yes we should...and we do that in a number of ways. Some do it by building buildings. Others by helping the poor. And some even do both. God alone endures forever. But we can and do participate in His endurance by grace. Our charitable efforts are our way of "embodying" God's love for us. We give the flesh and bone to that love.