The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Lift Up Your Gates that the King of Glory May Come in
Let me describe a tiny part of the Good Friday/Easter celebration in the Antiochian-usage Byzantine church to alert us to how special is the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome. (cf. Worship magazine, Sept. 15, p. 448)
On Good Friday at Vespers an iconic representation of Jesus’ body is laid in a bier representing a tomb. It is adorned with flowers and venerated as the community leaves the church in solemn silence. Later that evening, Matins of Great Saturday is celebrated. The texts of the hymns are both full of grief and a joyful anticipation of the Resurrection. As the service ends the bier is carried outside the church in procession. Upon arriving back at the church entrance it is raised high so that the people can pass under it as they reenter the church, now entering, as it were, into the domain of the dead. The church is now Hades. The representation of Jesus is placed on the altar, the sanctuary becomes his tomb. A night-long vigil begins.
When the Easter candle is lit, in smaller churches each person coming forward to light their candle from the Paschal Candle, a procession around the church follows, and an entrance into the dark space. The dialogue at the door sings out ‘Lift up you gates’. The person inside is called the ‘shaytan’ – Satan, the ruler of Hades. Three times the challenge is given, ‘Lift up you gates’. Death collapses, the forces of the Resurrection and life throw open the doors to reclaim the church. Entering, they find all lights lit, the chandeliers and icon lamps all swinging, indicating the cosmic-shaking intensity of this victory. ‘Christ is Risen!’, ‘Indeed he is risen!’ is the joyful, shared greeting.
The sketchy description above describes so poorly describes a rich celebration different for those of us who celebrate the Roman rite. The doors are familiar and important enabling us to enter sacred space. What a beautiful use of the darkened church to symbolize Hades – we might remember the Holy Saturday reading of Christ’s descent into hell or the Gospel of Nicodemus, (chapters 17-21), which may well be the model for this Byzantine liturgy. And the dialogue with psalm 24 is powerful, pushing those closed doors open and revealing the surprise of a church transformed and full of light.
Our gospel today shows Jesus cleansing the temple space. He has just given us his first sign, the wine of Cana. But now he is asked for a sign. Jesus says the temple is more than stone, it is his body, and when destroyed in three days he will raise it up. Mary has accepted Jesus’ word; those around Jesus do not accept it. But believers know the temple is the crucified and risen body of Jesus.
The ceremony above shows, I believe, how a church is symbolically used at the great celebration of Jesus crucified and risen. St. John Lateran does that too, uniquely with its ancient baptismal font, but in many ways. It is Pope Francis’ cathedral, and in a sense our cathedral too, mother of all cathedrals. May what we approach in bread and wine, water, light, incense, the metaphor of song and the touch of peace, no matter how humble and imperfect be our celebrations or our church, may we like Mary believe the word and find our way through the church to the mystery of Christ, victorious and risen.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.