(See the readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, Nov. 9)
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome, hence it is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the pope. The original structure was the first church built (324) after Constantine legalized the practice of Catholicism in the Roman Empire.
The church is officially titled the Church of the Holy Savior with the twin patrons of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist added a few centuries latter. Today we celebrate the feast of its dedication.
One might ask, “why do we celebrate the dedication of a church building?” It is a good question and worthwhile to consider. Church buildings hold a great symbolic value as well as the practical. The primary practical value is that the space is dedicated to God as a place where his people can gather around the altar of sacrifice in celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
In this gathering and celebration the church, the Body of Christ is made manifest. As the priest, or in this case bishop, gathers with the faithful around the altar in praise and thanksgiving to God, the Church becomes visible. In this act of worship Christ is present: in the word, in the sacrament, in the priest and in the communion of the faithful.
Symbolically we call the building a “church” because that is what it symbolically represents, the Body of Christ. The mission of Christ Jesus was to save mankind from sin and death uniting them into one, in His Body, so that all people can share in the divine life of Trinitarian love.
So the dedication of a church building concretely represents the establishment of a local church. In the case of St. John Lateran, the church is the first legally established church so it holds a significance for all Christians. Further significance comes in that the Archbasilica (the only “arch” basilica) is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the successor to St. Peter as head of the apostles. In these roles the basilica can rightly claim, as the inscription on the façade reads, “mother and head of all the churches.”
The readings for today’s liturgy help us to understand “the Church,” but not so much as a building as what the building represents. The Gospel account for the liturgy recalls Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem is where sacrifices were offered in praise and thanksgiving to God and for the atonement for sin. After Jesus cleanses the Temple of the moneychangers and those selling “oxen, sheep and doves,” he is asked: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” He replies: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews think he is speaking literally about the Temple building (which in its latest iteration was constructed by Herod the Great and took many years to build). But Jesus is not speaking of the Temple of stone, he is speaking of his body. He will lay down his body on the cross then take it up three days later in the resurrection. In this one perfect sacrifice of praise, thanksgiving and love, Jesus assumes in his body the purpose of the Temple. The Temple of Jerusalem then loses its significance and is replaced by Jesus’ body, the church.
The first reading from the Book of Ezekiel describes a type of eschatological Temple. This particular part of the prophet’s work is written in apocalyptic style. This type of writing uses highly symbolic language to convey a great significance and to offer hope in times of persecution or trouble. The prophet speaks of water flowing out of the Temple in many directions. The water brings life as the prophet describes: “Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh. Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
The description prepares the way for Christ and the life-giving waters of baptism where we are united with Christ and each other. Through the waters of baptism we mysteriously and sacramentally participate in the death of Christ through incorporation into his body, the church. In this union we are promised a like share in his resurrection from the dead. Thus the waters of baptism fill us with life-giving grace.
The responsorial psalm likewise speaks of life-giving water. The psalmist writes: “There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High. God is in its midst; it shall not be disturbed.”
Many times the “city of God” is used to describe the Kingdom of God. The church as the Body of Christ on earth is a manifestation of this kingdom and at the same time points toward its fulfillment at the end of time. In the Church gathered around the altar for the celebration of the Eucharist we are in a very real way transported out of time joining with all the angels and saints in the heavenly Church in praise of God in and through Christ Jesus. In this we exclaim with the psalmist: “The Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob. Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord, the astounding things he has wrought on earth.”
Perhaps St. Paul most clearly describes the Church as the Body of Christ when he writes: “Brothers and sisters: You are God’s building … Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”
The holiness that comes from being dedicated or set aside for God belongs to the living church. While this holiness is real and significant, there is an added dimension of “being holy.” Being holy is living our lives as dedicated to God; making decisions and acting in accordance with his will; loving God and neighbor; laying down our lives in love.
Holiness entails our union with Christ in his one perfect sacrifice. The Fourth Eucharistic prayer expresses this desire in these words: “Look, O Lord, upon the Sacrifice which you yourself have provided for your church, and grant in your loving kindness to all who partake of this one Bread and one Chalice that, gathered into one body by the Holy Spirit, they may truly become a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your glory.”
Celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica we ask our heavenly Father to strengthen his church so that she can continue the mission of his love. We ask for continued growth in the church so that all people may be one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Finally, we ask that the church may be a visible reminder of that one perfect sacrifice that established, sustains and fortifies her.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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