Temples Earthly and Heavenly

There are churches which bind us to our past but we must never forget that they, like us, are not immortal.



Shortly after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984, my husband Christopher and I found ourselves marooned in Goa. India was in lockdown, so there were very few tourists around, and in any case it was not safe to travel. These strange days coincided with the exposition of St Francis Xavier, which takes place every ten years in Old Goa, the capital of Portuguese India since 1510, but long since abandoned. Normally it would have been crammed with visitors, but on this occasion the pilgrims were largely local. As the mummified body of the Saint was processed from one massive colonial church to another – the domed Church of St Cajetan, inspired by St Peters in Rome, the monumental Se Cathedral, with its ornate chapels and bell tower, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where St Francis’s body normally reposed – we followed. And all around us the jungle encroached on these vast and empty temples, as if to remind us that nothing made with human hands can last forever.

We only have to look around us to recognise how important buildings are and always have been to people of faith.  ‘I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord’ sings the author of Psalm 122, one of many psalms that tell of King David’s plans for a permanent site for a temple in Jerusalem: a place to serve as a tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant, a sanctuary for the Ten Commandments, and the ultimate focus of worship for the Jewish people. David’s vision was eventually realised by his son Solomon, and what a vision it was, heroically conceived and lavishly realised – a splendid rectangular edifice, raised on what became the Temple Mount, the place where Abraham had reputedly built the altar on which to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It had two courtyards, the inner one of which contained a bronze altar. There was an immense basin for ritual washing, and two detached pillars, known as Jachin and Boaz, stood at the entrance to the building itself.  This First Temple was completed in 957 BC and during the next four hundred years or so the treasure accumulated in the ‘Holy of Holies’ attracted raids not only by foreigners but also the kings of Judah themselves, until, in 586 BC the Babylonians razed it to the ground.

In 571 BC, the Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of ‘the new temple’, based on Solomon’s original, but the building of this Second Temple had to await not only a decree from the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, but the return of the first wave of exiles from Babylon in 538 BC.  Zerubbabel, then leader of the tribe of Judah, laid its foundations, but the building languished, and it was not until Haggai prophesied  that ‘the glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former, saith the Lord God of hosts’ that it was eventually completed. Poor old Zerubbabel’s name is never mentioned again in connection with the Second Temple – perhaps because the Jews were disappointed by its lack of grandeur: it was rather smaller than Solomon’s temple and no longer contained the Ark of the Covenant. But it lasted for even longer than the first one – 500 years  – long enough for the Messiah to be presented there and, as a man, to walk in its courts, so perhaps Haggai was right after all.

Needless to say, the Second Temple was never good enough for King Herod. He had grandiose plans of his own to develop it which he put in train in 19 BC – plans that were still being carried out when Jesus was born and were not completed until 64 AD. They included an outer court for public debate and for money-changing: the riches of the temple treasury were kept in the coinage of Tyre, which was odd, because even though it was the most stable currency at the time, it bore the representation of a Phoenician god, Melkart, the god of traders and a particular favourite with Hannibal. It was here where, towards the end of his short life, Jesus expelled the money-changers in an unusually violent scene: John’s gospel tells us that he made a scourge with which to drive everyone out, down to the last sheep, ox and dove, saying ‘Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.’

Almost immediately afterwards come those few verses on which, it could be said, the whole of our Christian faith resides –  Christ’s promise that if the temple were destroyed, he would raise it again in three days. The Jews, ever literal, pointed out that the temple took forty-six years to build. It was only after Jesus’ death that they realised what he meant: that the temple to which he was referring was himself; the destruction of it, his crucifixion; and the raising up, his glorious Resurrection.

The impulses that feed the building of places of worship have never been straightforward.  Temples and churches have been built to the glory of many gods, but they have also been built as monuments to power, to money, to ambition, and to curry favour with whatever deity requires attention. Those who dreamed up the cathedral in Seville, once the largest in the world, are on record as saying: ‘Let us build a church so immense that people will say we are mad.’ And the temple of Solomon, in Sao Paulo, which was designed as an exact replica of the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, was welcomed by Bishop Edir Macedo with the words: ‘We are not going to build  a temple of gold, but we will spend tons of money without a shadow of a doubt.’ This temple, which was inaugurated in 2014, seats 10,000 worshippers, and is 55 metres tall – the height of an 18 storey building. Its central altar is an exact replica of the Ark of the Covenant – entirely covered in gold leaf. It also boasts a helicopter landing pad.

There are churches which bind us to our past: the cathedral at Chartres is a soaring building with some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows ever made – windows not designed to blind the worshipper with colour but to tell them the stories they could not read for themselves. There are baroque churches in Spain which are like theatres telling the greatest story ever told. There is – my favourite I think – a tiny Anglo-Saxon church in a field near Burford, which, with its simplicity and its washed-out wall-paintings, reminds me that God in all his glory is also to be found in emptiness, stillness and solitude. Places of worship – as we know at St Mary’s – are, at their best, places of community, safety, reassurance and faith – refuges in which to discover our own hearts and souls. But we must never forget that they are products of human frailty and weakness as well as love and strength, and, like us, they are not immortal.

I have not forgotten that Mrs Gandhi’s assassination took place as the result of an attack by the Indian Army on the Golden Temple at Amritsar. I have not forgotten taking refuge, the night after it happened, in the British High Commission compound and seeing terrified Sikhs being herded in to take refuge with us. And I have not forgotten those great empty monuments in Goa, monuments to a faith we share, with the jungle closing in on them.