King Solomon built a temple. That is quite a story. His father, David, had established the capital in the old Jebusite city of Jerusalem, and had brought there the central symbols of Israelite religion: the Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle, and the priesthood. David had wanted to build a temple, but God had said, “No thank you,” and insisted instead on establishing a house, a dynasty, for David. Whatever the reason, somehow or other David never got around to building it. There was always a strand of tradition that was fundamentally skeptical about, if not opposed to, the notion of a temple. The Ark of the Covenant was moveable. So was the tabernacle. People sensed from the beginning that when Israel settled down, something would change. They said that they feared becoming like all the other nations. And they were right. For the old basis of unity, the covenant allegiance with Yahweh, gradually gave way to empire. Loyalty to the king and the king’s agenda supplanted loyalty to the Covenant and the Covenant’s God.
By the time Solomon ascended the throne, conditions were right for going ahead with the capital campaign and the resulting building project. Borders were secure. The throne, by the time Solomon had executed his competition, was established. And, as people would soon find out, the new king was an ambitious king. He liked building things. He was fond of great big projects. And he was wise. He knew that if he could organize the religious personnel, rites, and rituals and keep them not only centrally located but within spitting distance of the royal palace, religion would be much more of a unifying than a dividing force. Politicians like that. They like having a tame religion that operates on schedule, preferably one that blesses their projects.
Brand new, a stunning architectural achievement, the temple was ready to be dedicated. Solomon was virtually the whole program that day. Imagine. The king himself, not merely attending and participating in the ceremonies, but in the role of the chief consecrator. Of course, the report we have is from a later historian [the Deuteronomist] who puts his language into the mouth of Solomon. But no matter. Knowing what we know about Solomon, we find none of it surprising. He invoked tradition and reminded God that God had made an everlasting covenant with the house of David. He asked for help. He acknowledged that God, who could not be contained in the highest heaven, certainly couldn’t live in such a temple as he, Solomon, had built. Nevertheless, he prayed that God would regard this house as special. And he prayed for God to protect the people, forgive the people, responding to their crises like droughts and famines with caring intervention. He even prayed for the foreigner who might come and pray towards the temple, that God would hear that prayer as well. He prayed that God would prosper the causes for which armies fought, and hear prayers for the warriors directed towards the temple. And he wrapped it up with a peroration again pleading for mercy and forgiveness (who does not need both?) for all and sundry who prayed towards or were connected to the temple.
We might be tempted to say that this whole episode, interesting as it is, is little more than an example of old-time religion of little use today. It has a tribal quality to it. And some of that tribalism lives on. Indeed a good bit of geopolitics in the 21st century is played out around the nation of Israel and its traditions, its enemies, and its past. But the scriptures are like an onion. There are all sorts of layers well beneath the obvious. This is no exception. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” That is an amazing insight in any age. The “thick darkness” in which God is said to dwell resonates with anyone who has tried to meditate or who has practiced centering prayer. Underneath all the prayers for protection and forgiveness, we still hear the unmistakably familiar cries of help that come out of us almost despite ourselves when we are in deep trouble.
And although it is not as magnificent as Solomon’s temple, St. Stephen and the Incarnation is a church that is just as holy a place. About everything you can imagine has gone on here over the eight decades these walls have stood. Not all of those things would make it into the Bible, but some of them would and did. Here people have prayed. Here they have sought peace and reconciliation. Here they have fed the hungry and consoled the grieving and dying. Here they have celebrated the arts and made music and laughed and cried and applauded courage and organized efforts for justice. In short, here in these walls, people have done the work of, and sung the songs of, and argued the nature of, and met God. We did it and we do it because those are human things to do, all of them. And humans never meet God outside human experience, always within those things that make us human. We encounter the Divine whenever we do what the Divine does, whenever we love what God loves, whenever we allow ourselves to become vessels that hold God’s spirit or conduits that transmit God’s power. We treasure times when that happens, and sometimes put up tablets or monuments to mark a sacred event. But even more than that, we build altars and light candles and say prayers in sacred places. We keep returning to those places even when the religion changes. You can go to Rome today and worship in Christian churches built on the sites of pagan temples in antiquity, and you can go to Britain and drink from wells that once were holy to Druids and whose gushing water of life we associate with our Christ.
But it is never the temple or the church that needs to be dedicated, though we do it to mark it off as sacred. It is the life of the people, the community, the relationships that beg for dedication. In the sacred places, the most that we can hope to do is to sense the Presence that others have sensed, to catch the beam of holy light that others have spied. And most of the time, if what we catch or spy is genuine, it will not keep us inside the building, it will impel us to go forth. Because God really never settles down, but is always on the move. The Ark may stop, but God keeps going and calling us to follow.
The highest heaven cannot contain thee, much less this house that we have built and are rebuilding. We know that. And to borrow some words from one of our best poets, R. S. Thomas, we sometimes find ourselves pretending, maybe, that we lay this trap for you God, entice you with candles, as though you would come out of the darkness like some gigantic moth, to beat here. We know better. But we return to the patterns and memories so deep within us that we are only dimly conscious of what they are. We whisper a prayer—help—thank you—forgive—I’m sorry—I love you, I love you, I love you—striking our prayers on our stony hearts, hoping to God that one of them might ignite, and cast on these walls its light, so that we can see the shadow of one greater than we can understand.*
* “The Empty Church,” in R. S. Thomas, The Poems of R. S. Thomas (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1985), 122.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012