In the time of Jesus there was in the temple of Jerusalem a stone wall approximately 6 feet high separating the outer court, the court of the Gentiles, from the inner court, the court of the Jews. On this dividing wall was a sign prohibiting any non-Jew from going further under the pain of death. This wall stood, then, as a visible sign of the division between Jew and pagan, with the implication that the pagans were unworthy of coming into the presence of God to worship him. They were considered by Jews “unclean” sinners, simply by virtue of the fact of being pagans.
When St Paul says in our second reading that Jesus has made peace between Jew and Gentile by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between them, he has this temple wall in mind. Paul is not saying that Jesus physically destroyed that wall with a hammer, but that its symbolic value had been destroyed. (In point of fact that wall itself would be torn down when the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 70, at the time of the Jewish uprising against their Roman occupiers.) The curse of “uncleanness” had been removed from the pagans, they were free now to come with the Jews and have access, with them, to God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
In the Temple also, in its most sacred space, the Holy of Holies, containing the Ark of the Covenant, the visible symbol of the presence of God Himself, there was a curtain or veil, beyond which no-one, not even a Jew, was allowed to go, on pain of death, except for the High Priest, and that only one day a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice for the forgiveness of the sins of the people. At Jesus’ crucifixion, the moment he died, we are told in Matthew’s gospel, that this “veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27: 51), signifying now that everyone, be they Jew or Gentile, could always come into the presence of God. There was no physical or spiritual barrier, be it the wall or curtain of the Temple, or the curse of uncleanness because of our sins, remaining between us and our God.
We come to this church building, we are free to come right up close to the altar, where the very presence of God is made manifest during our Mass, through the Body and Blood of Jesus, and no-one is going to stop us or say, “You are not worthy to go there.” At times of silent adoration and prayer, the Blessed Sacrament, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ Himself, is exposed and we can come into that presence here and we will not be struck down by lightning for our presumption. I always want to say to those who sit at the back during Mass: ”Don’t worry, you don’t have to hang back there, the Temple wall and the Temple curtain have been destroyed, you are not going to be struck down and killed, come up closer. Don’t be afraid. The curse of your uncleanness, your unworthiness as a sinner, has been struck down by Jesus.” Of course, I never actually say that, and I doubt if it would make much difference. But the truth of my words remains. We don’t have to be scared of coming into the presence of God anymore, because of Jesus. If only more of us, including many, many Catholics, could grasp the truth of that, it would transform their lives.
How did Jesus achieve this, the removal of the barriers between Jew and Gentile, and between Jew and Gentile and God? St Paul tells us, in our second reading, that he did it, “in his flesh,” that is by his bodily death on the cross and his bodily resurrection. In his death he brought to death the old man, the old humanity we inherited from Adam and Eve, with the defilement of original sin upon it, and in his resurrection, he took on the New Man, the new humanity, and we who were born into the old humanity by our natural birth from our earthly mother, are now reborn into that new humanity in Jesus by our supernatural birth of water and the Spirit, baptism, from our spiritual mother, the Church. Why should we be baptized, why should we have our children baptized as soon after birth as possible? Not just because it gives us the right to receive the other sacraments, or get into Catholic schools, but because it frees us from the old burdens of sin and shame and eternal death in hell, inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. Baptism opens the way for us to go to heaven, to spend eternal joy and peace with God. What parent would not want that for their child? What person in their right minds would not want that for themselves? You would think it would be a no-brainer, wouldn’t you? But no, apparently not, many Catholics want to divest themselves of their baptism, because they are angry with the Church’s failures. I may be angry with my natural parents for various reasons, furious even, but would I commit suicide because of that? I hope not! But many Catholics are seeking to commit spiritual suicide by renouncing their baptism and their chance of eternal life in heaven.
The Church is described in St Paul’s writings as the Body of Christ (Romans 12: 4-5; 1 Corinthians 12: 12ff). When St Paul says in our second reading that Jesus reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God in one body through the cross, he is not just talking about Jesus’ bodily death. He is also saying that, by bringing both Jews and pagans into the Church, the Body of Christ, through baptism, he is making us all one: one body, one faith, one people, one family. In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul emphasizes that point, when he says: ”As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or freeman, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3 :27-28). Paul further says, in his letter to the Ephesians, that in the Church, “there is one body and one Spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all “ (Ephesians 4: 4-5). The hardest thing for Paul to accept in the new Christian communities is that there is still division and disunity among them, a division based on all kinds of superficial differences, rather than understanding the deeper spiritual bonds of faith and prayer and love that should unite them as one body, one people in Christ.
I remember reading a sign on a wall somewhere that said: ”People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.” The Church is meant to be the representation of the kingdom of God on earth, where because of our common faith in Jesus, we recognize in each other a brother or sister in Christ, and these bonds of faith and prayer and love should be deeper and stronger than all other ties, even those of family and friendship. If we look at our parish communities and see only our differences, then we are selling short what the Church is called to be, and why Jesus died on the cross. Each of us have to look at ourselves as we relate to others in the Church and ask ourselves: ”Am I being a bridge or a wall in this community, a bridge that leads others to Jesus, or a wall that prevents them coming to Jesus?
So which is it, brothers and sisters, are you a bridge, or a wall?