Dedication of St. John Lateran
Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12
1 Corinthians 3: 9c-11, 16-17
John 2: 13-22
For most people, individuals as well as cultures, tribes, societies and families, a place can have great importance and a deep meaning. A place, whether land or structure, can evoke memories of home and roots; battles won or lost; historical events which give meaning to the present; and especially a connection with the Holy. But it is not merely geography or edifice which anchors reverence most deeply in the human heart. Rather reverence is developed for a place because of the connection it provides with others, living or dead, past, present or even future. A place becomes sacred because of the connections it provides with others and with the Holy.
Today’s feast celebrates such a reality. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the official parish church of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Its origin can be traced back to 333 and the Emperor Constantine. It has been destroyed, rebuilt and restored multiple times over the centuries. At one time there was a palace connected with the church which became the residence of the Pope. In the early centuries, St. John Lateran was viewed as the Mother Church of Christendom, the symbol of the oneness of the people of God and their unity with Christ. After the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in a more favorable location in the 16th century, the symbol of unity was transferred to that larger structure and the importance of St. John Lateran faded from peoples’ memory. However, the significance of this particular church expanded and has developed into a theology of the indwelling of Christ with the community that has come to be what we celebrate today.
The reading from Ezekiel describes the Temple in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, and the life-giving waters that flow from it. The water is fresh and flows into the salt sea giving life to the dead waters. The water flowing from the sanctuary provides abundant life to all it touches. The life giving presence of God is not meant to be contained within the physical confines of the Temple.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is seen driving out merchants and money changers who are desecrating the Temple, the house of his Father. The building is a sacred structure and a location of the Holy for the Israelites, the sign of the indwelling of God with them. But Jesus expanded the image of the location of God’s presence to himself, the temple of his body. God was to be experienced in the actual living historical presence of Jesus.
It is Paul who expresses most succinctly what this feast has come to represent today, the focus of our celebration. The presence of God is not confined to a building or a particular location. Jesus was certainly the presence of God in a unique way to the people of his time. But most amazingly, says Paul, we, by the grace of God in baptism, are actually the presence of God, the holy temple of God, today. Our foundation is Jesus Christ and the Spirit of Christ is alive in us and makes us who we are called to be. And this is a truly challenging belief to understand, live out and make real. If we really believe we are the body of Christ, the presence of God in the world today, then we must accept the challenge to live what we are. In our treatment of family, strangers, friends or those we don’t really like, we must in some way give them a sense of the goodness and love of God, not in a forced artificial pietistic way of acting but as an unspoken manifestation of our inner reality.
A church, The Church is not a building or a single person but the people of God together, growing in holiness though not yet completely holy but unable to be confined or limited by walls or boundaries and constantly spreading outwards to provide new life for others.
Cathy Anthony is on the staff of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat Center, Detroit, Michigan.