Every generation of believers has to ponder how power, money, and politics might be distorting the gospel and negatively affecting the Church. That’s an important “takeaway” from this episode of the Gospels.
We can look at the cleansing of the Temple as an historical event, a key moment of Jesus’ confrontation with the authorities. In the thinking of many, it was this provocative action that got Him condemned to death—this was the one step too far that the religious and political establishment could not tolerate.
But it can’t just be something of the past, because Christ is not simply a figure of our past, as much as the elites in Western society try to consign Christianity to history with a mumbled ‘thank you’.
When preparing for this Mass, doing up our little electronic billboard that we have in the entryway and the banner for the website, I came across a painting of the scene, the Cleansing of the Temple by El Greco, the famous Spanish renaissance painter.
El Greco means, “the Greek.” Indeed, his name was actually Doménikos Theotokópoulos and he was born and raised on Crete, studied art in Rome but moved to Toledo, Spain where he set up his successful studio—it’s because he gained fame in Spain that he is regarded as a “Spanish” painter.
As a young man on Crete he learned the art of Byzantine icon making, and some of that can be seen in his later painting done in a more “western” style as per what he learned in Rome. So, his artistic foundations were very Christian.
Anyway, one of his less famous works is of the cleansing, of Jesus driving out the moneychangers. Insofar as it is famous, it’s not so much for being a masterpiece, but because he made four versions of the same scene over thirty years. He was never entirely satisfied with it. Indeed, if you see the first version, its style reminds you of Renaissance artists like Raphael and Michelangelo whose works El Greco studied.
Over and over again he returned to the subject, and by the time we come to the fourth version, it reflects more what we’ve come to know as El Greco’s style, those distinct elongated figures, the interesting coloration, all anticipating more modern styles of painting and sculpture even as it references ancient Christian art.
It would seem he was determined to express this event in a way that we could see it afresh; that by his brush, through his art, we might perceive the substance of what Jesus wanted to say by his actions. Each time he struggled to get beyond the artistic idiom of his day, to get past the cliché and hackneyed conventions of painting that made this scene too familiar to people; and hence disregarded, as Christians failed to truly heed it, assuming among themselves that they knew what it meant.
El Greco painted in a time of tremendous social, cultural, political and economic upheaval. For those living through this period, it was both an exciting and frightening time. Christendom itself had been shattered by the Reformation, and the counter-Reformation was in full swing in Catholic countries like Spain. People would look at images of the temple cleansing, with Jesus brandishing his whip of cords, and they would read it according to their biases. If you were a Protestant, what you saw was Jesus driving out those money-grubbing sellers of indulgences; if a Catholic, our Saviour had arrived to force out the corrupters of our religion, those Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists who had quite literally looted the Catholic Church, melting down the candlesticks and the chalices into money.
Did anyone see themselves as the moneychangers, as the sellers of pigeons and other sacrificial animals, did anyone see themselves as the object of Christ’s anger?
What’s interesting in El Greco is that as a Greek trained in the art of icon making, he would have understood art as being far more, how shall we say, interactive. The icon is not something that is simply viewed in terms of its surface, the colours, the technique, even the subject matter. Indeed, it’s like visual scripture. The icon is a window into heaven as you contemplate the saint who is depicted, or in many cases, our Lord, or the Blessed Virgin Mary. An icon is also understood to be a window that allows heavenly inspection of ourselves, to lead us into introspection, which is how scripture is to work when we read it. As El Greco began to bring more of the iconic style he learned as a young man to his painting, his not quite realistic human figures are more like icons, like the image we have here of our Lady of Perpetual Help, and this is to draw us into a more contemplative state. The cleansing of the temple as he painted it becomes something more than something we look at, but a means by which we look at ourselves. St. Paul told us that we are temples of the Holy Spirit—and so what does this tell us about ourselves, what must be driven from ourselves, overthrown, cast out, that keeps us from being, both as individuals and as a community, Our Father’s House on earth?
I think today, as it was ever thus, as it was in the time of religious upheaval during the time of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, we are sorely tempted to look at others as the problem with the world, with the Church. I won’t say there is nothing to that. Indeed, the steady march through our institutions of ideology that overthrows basic morality and fundamental truths is fast leading us to a culture, a politics and an economics of loneliness and death, it is real; but the resistance to it, the pushing back against this progressive sinfulness must start within, within the temple that each of us is, and then we sweep clean this parish, this diocese, and so on such that when people enter into the precincts of this parish, or encounter us, they see God’s Temple in its glory.
The sign the world is waiting for is that sign we each show, of our death to the world, and our rising in and through Christ.