I was, I confess, tempted. But my misery did not want their company.
My heart was sore. I was far from home, struggling to process the news of my mother’s cancer, and my father’s anger. Struggling to accept that my best friend had finally, firmly, rejected the gospel. Struggling with the impotency of working in a country where poverty and sickness were giants in the land. God seemed remote, silent. Like a wax saint.
“Vete al templo. Go to the temple,” my Catholic friends had urged. But the cathedral, despite the beauty of filigree, jewel-toned paint, votives and effigies, was starkly empty. It felt as though God had departed from me, and I wondered when – if – he would come back. Hunched over in the scarred pew, I yearned for God to come and fill the temple with his presence.
In Israel’s history the temple was where man came to meet with God, to offer sacrifices of worship or atonement, to inquire of the Lord for understanding and direction, or simply to “gaze upon his beauty”. The temple was where the heavenly realm overlapped with the earthly one, a place which God filled with his glory and presence. But the temple that I was sitting in that morning only echoed with an appalling silence.
I thought wistfully of Eden, where God’s presence was immediate and all-pervasive, a Creator walking among his creatures. Sin had broken this communion, leaving man neither fit nor able to stand in God’s holy presence. But when a temple was built where priests might mediate, God had filled that temple with his glory. Would he do so now, for me?
I thought of the fiery cloud that had hovered at the entrance of Moses’ tent, filled and covered the tabernacle throughout Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, then five hundred years later filled Solomon’s temple as he dedicated it in prayer. But when, after four hundred years, Solomon’s temple was destroyed Israel taken captive to Babylon, Ezekiel described the fiery cloud departing from the temple. God…left. Desolate hearers clung to promises that, someday, he would return. Were they hopeful? Or were they wary and weary, as I was?
Seventy years later Israel was still waiting, until an entirely new temple was built. By decree of a Persian king, walls were erected by Nehemiah. But when that temple was dedicated, old men wept. For it was but a shadow of its former splendor, and the glory of God did not return to fill it. The prophet Haggai promised that the fiery cloud would indeed one day return, saying, “The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former”, but were they prepared for another four-hundred year wait? Years in which their hopes would be further dashed by a Greek emperor defiling their altar with sacrificial pigs?
Angry Jewish revolutionaries arose to liberate the temple for a brief time, but still God’s glory did not return, despite the flames of the Menorah remaining miraculously alight. I glanced around the cathedral at flickering votive candles, unlikely to be confused with the fiery cloud of God’s holy presence.
Israel’s hopes sagged further when Rome took over, and then were pinned upon a puppet king. Herod the Great enlarged the temple area to a size of nearly thirty-five acres, resplendent with balustrades, pillars and priceless adornments. But at its dedication the fiery cloud did not descend. And when, a few years later, a small, insignificant infant was brought to be dedicated in the temple, he was wholly unrecognizable as the being in whom heaven and earth, human and divine, met and made manifest the glorious presence of God on earth. God came back. And the temple, as a building, became irrelevant.
Sunlight glinted through stained glass as I reflected on the painted images of tongues of fire hovering over ecstatic disciples. By his death and resurrection, Christ redefined the concept of the temple completely. At Pentecost the fiery cloud returned at last to fill the temple – the living temple of those believers who were gathered in prayer. Christ’s followers themselves had become the place and the means through which God’s presence would invade the earth, building for his kingdom until he comes to renew the earth.
God came back, just as he promised. To first century believers, and to me that day in Mexico. And he comes back - again and again - whenever we meet with him in prayer. Just as with Moses and the priests of old, whenever a Christ-follower turns to God the fiery cloud fills the temple, the whole of his Living Temple - his people. And God’s people, I realized in astonishment, are everywhere! Surely when we pray, God’s presence must come wherever believers are to be found, all around the world: a reality-shattering presence that shakes and challenges the complacency and self-absorption of believers and bystanders alike.
The pew eventually grew uncomfortable, and resounding brass bells heralded a coming Mass. But I could not leave just yet. I felt an urgency to pray, knowing that his presence, in the person of his Holy Spirit, was with me, within me, waiting to blaze in and through all believers like a pillar of fire. I thought of the pastor who was visiting my mother in the hospital, the Christian teacher who had promised to pursue my atheist friend, the faithful volunteers determined to bring hope to orphans, widows, and the poorest of the poor. I thought of these and others, living stones scattered across the globe.
“Come, Holy Spirit,” I whispered. “Fill your Temple.”
 John 17:22-23; 1Pet. 2:5; 1 Cor. 3:16