Monday, March 14, 2011

Temple Sounds

There was a line outside. Men with goats, bulls, doves, bowls of flour and oil, all stood about waiting until the priest was ready to receive each of them. Some spoke to their neighbors, glad-hearted and expectant. Others were silent, watching from within themselves as if from a long way away. Added to this moderately patient crowd was the cackling racket of the animals. The helpless bleating of lambs and flapping of pigeons in makeshift cages played a reckless counterpoint over the disquieted lowing of great bulls, one scuffing its hooves anxiously, one searching through the grain sack of a waiting stranger with its great purple tongue. Goats grunted and whined and stared about with their almond eyes. All these, of course, contributed to an extensive carpet of defecation which every waiting man was keen to avoid, most of them with the mild attentiveness of one who is acclimated to such things. The Judean street bustled about them in the jovial ho-hum importance of its daily market affairs. Men and women carried bundles of firewood, homespun fabric still suggestive of the oily, metallic smell of sheep, precarious jars of water, bags of dry spelt, dates, grapes, stonily crusted loaves of bread waiting to be broken open to reveal the wonderful riches inside – all of it accompanied by the hocking sing-songs of those who would trade, their voices trying not to betray the desperation to sell.

Upon finally entering the gates, each man from the line was greeted by a terrific onslaught of his senses. Smoke and incense perfumed the air. The priests on duty looked positively monstrous, their ceremonial clothes saturated with blood spatter across the aprons, their sleeves acrid with smoke. The cacophony of wounded livestock echoed off the ornate walls, mingling with the tinkling of tiny bells from the priests’ once beautiful garments. The greatest sensation was the smell – blood, death, cooking, incense, offal, smoke, singed hides – all of it together in the expansive and elaborate temple court. One could never grow completely accustomed to it. In the heat of the day it was almost unbearable, and you never left forgetting it.

This is the place where sin is atoned for. The raucous din and unforgettable smell surrounded by lavish architectural adornment paint an unmistakable portrait of the intersection of holy mystery and the chaotic business of redemption. It was not, is not, sexy, and never shall it be. It is the necessary mess, the alluvial muck wherefrom springs the golden corn of wheat – life-giving only when it has fallen into the earth and died. Redemptive work saturates us in the leprous putrescence of sin, not as those who partake, but as the physician’s assistant – doing his fallible best – is covered in the smears and viscosity of the physician’s work. His life is lived in a rhythm: scrub up, dive in, scrub up dive in, scrub up, dive in, with all the human business of living and learning in between. With tending, and with time, what he finally sees emerge from beneath the caked bandages and dripping tubes is the wholeness of a human being.


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