A terrible beauty

In 1967 guerrillas in Rhodesia struck the first blow in a struggle that was to last 12 years before the door opened on a new country: Zimbabwe. It was a hopeless act, soon crushed, and the leaders were caught and executed. But it was a start and concentrated the thinking of people on all sides.

In 1916, in Ireland, something similar took place. A group, impatient of the long 700 year struggle against the British, seized the Central Post Office and declared an independent republic. The rebellion was quickly crushed and the leaders executed but it inspired the poet, W B Yeats, to write of the pregnant meaning of the event:

All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

The rising was supposed to ignite a general rising across the country but the people were no more ready than the Zimbabweans on 1967. But it changed how people thought and, especially after the executions, it roused people to action. It was ‘terrible’ but there was a great ‘beauty’ in seeing people rise up and risk everything for freedom.

When Jesus entered the temple and drove out the people selling ‘cattle and sheep and pigeons’ he too was ‘devoured by zeal’ to do something. ‘Take all this out of here and stop turning my Father’s house into a market’ (John Ch.2).

It was a hopeless gesture and changed nothing at the time, though it added to the reasons for his execution. But there was a ‘terrible beauty’ about it for it announced the beginning of something totally new, ‘unheard of since the world began’ (John 9:32).

John puts this incident at the beginning of his gospel, (the others put it towards the end) because he wants to make a clear statement about his whole work.The Ten Commandments established signposts for the chosen community of Israel and the temple worship nourished their identity, but neither gave the people the means of reaching their goal.The law could not give power to observe what it commanded.

Paul calls this goal ‘justification’ or ‘salvation’ – words which mean opening a person to the fullness (John 10:10) of life through accepting the ‘power and wisdom’ (I Cor. 1: 24) of God. So the early church interpreted the action of Jesus in ‘cleansing’ the temple – if even for a moment – as a sign of the new power that was to be given to men and women so that they could rise to a new life. The Ten Commandmentsare not so much prohibitions – don’t do this, don’t do that – blocking freedom, as channels, allowing freedom to find its way. And from now on it would be possible to follow these ten words and so come to a real freedom that would build up the whole community.

The powers that be reacted angrily but we sense that Jesus reacted even more angrily: ‘Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up.’John tells us he was speaking of his own body and his resurrection but there is no mistaking the force of his assertion. The temple is now his living body and that body is going to be recognised as the People of God and its establishment is going to be the revolutions to cap all revolutions.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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