Today, the Church commemorates the Dedication of the great Cathedral Church of St. John Lateran in Rome.
St. John Lateran is the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome.
The Bishop of Rome, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is the successor of St. Peter, and as such is not only the pastor of the Church of Rome, but of the universal Church. The pope has an authority to guide and govern the Church that exceeds that of any other bishop.
The Cathedral Church of St. John Lateran is the oldest of the great basilicas in Rome and stands on land once owned by an ancient Roman family, the Laterani.
This land, upon which stood a palace and several large buildings was given to Pope Militiades by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, who issued an edict in 313 AD granting imperial favor to the Church. Remember, that prior to 313 AD, the Church was considered an illegal sect by the Roman Empire and profession of the Faith of the Church was an act of treason and the practice of the Church’s Faith was considered to be an act of sedition.
For the first 300 hundred years of its life the Church was a persecuted minority, and despite the now vast global numbers, the Church remains a persecuted minority in many parts of the world today.
Constantine built a grand basilica, that is a large public building as a setting for the Church’s worship along with a residence and administrative center for the bishop of Rome on the Laterani property, and these building were dedicated in the year 324, by Pope Sylvester.
This date is remembered as a watershed moment for the Church because it represents not only the end of a terrible period of persecution, but from that moment on, the Church emerges formally as a public presence in the culture.
The Church was never intended to be a private association. In fact, the Romans might have left the Church alone if this was all that the Church thought itself to be. The Church is public and it engages with great vigor the cultures in which its members are embedded. A private Christian Faith is not just an anomaly, it is a contradiction of the will and purposes of Christ. One of the reasons the Roman state persecuted the Church was because it asserted itself publically and insisted that it be able to profess and practice its way of life, not as a servant of the state, but as a servant of Christ.
This made the Roman state very nervous- for in no way could it tolerate even the suggestion that there could be a rival to its power and will to rule.
Therefore, the Roman state persecuted the Church, trying to force it underground, with the intention of stamping it out of existence completely. The Roman empire did not persecute the Church because it didn’t like religion. The Roman state persecuted the Church because the Church insisted that her reality, her way of life, was public, rather than private.
This conflict pretty much ended in the year 313 AD and the dedication of the cathedral of St. John Lateran in the year 324 is a symbolic commemoration of the new relationship of the Church to the culture, not as private, but as public, not as a servant of Caesar or of the state, but as a free people who are all the servants of Christ.
Attempts to reduce the Faith of the Church to merely a private matter endure to this day and the Church continues to resist these attempts, many of which now come from, not the Church’s enemies, but from Christians themselves! Some Christians consider the Church to be a kind of clubhouse, rather than a whole way of life. In fact, it is this attitude towards the Church, that causes the Church to falter in its mission more than anything else.
It is not Christ’s will that the Church be reduced to a private club, and a Church that acts contrary to Christ’s will is not the Church, but the anti-church and an anti-church is not the servant of Christ, but of the anti-christ.
The scriptures assigned for today are all in their own unique way about the temple. Remember, our religion is not a religion that worships in assembly halls or entertainment venues, our religion is a temple religion and at the center of the Church’s way of life is the temple.
Today’s scriptures describe what sort of temple in which we worship.
The first scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation.
This scripture presented a vision of the temple of heaven and the earthly temple of the Church on earth is meant to be a representation of the temple of heaven.
This temple is the Mass. The Mass is not just an expression of the community, but it is the community of the Church worshipping God as he wants to be worshipped. The ritual of the Mass is meant as an expression on earth of the worship of heaven, not as simply an act of communal self-expression. This is the difference between true worship and false worship or what can be called faith-based entertainment. True worship honors God in Christ as he wants to be worshipped. False worship seeks to honor ourselves and uses the worship of God to give sanction to this self-reference.
The worship of the Church in the temple of the Mass makes heavenly realities present and available to us, we receive these heavenly realities in all the signs and symbols of the rituals of our worship, but most importantly, we receive the divine presence of God himself in the gift of the Blessed Sacrament.
And this is St. Paul’s point in his first letter to the Corinthians.
A temple is a dwelling place, a house for God. When St. Paul makes reference to the Christian as being a dwelling place for God or a kind of portable temple, his meaning is that we Christians receive the divine presence of God through our participation in the Eucharist. Having received the Eucharist we become, literally, bearers of the divine presence of Jesus Christ, living sanctuaries for God.
This is an important reminder to all of us who receive the Blessed Sacrament.
What we receive in the Blessed Sacrament is not merely a symbol of Christ, or an idea about Christ or a feeling about Christ. What we receive is the divine presence of Jesus Christ himself. This really raises the stakes in terms of what we are doing in terms of our worship.
If your body is truly meant as a living sanctuary for the divine presence of Jesus Christ, what is the condition of that sanctuary? How will your way of life show forth to others that in meeting you, they truly encounter the living presence of Jesus Christ? Is that sanctuary of your life a place of worship for God in Christ, or is it really a place of worship for false gods, like wealth, pleasure, power and honors?
What is the condition of the temple into which you will receive the divine presence of Jesus Christ?
Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus is described as forcefully driving out those who sold the animals that were to be ritually sacrificed in the temple of Jerusalem.
What is this all about?
It’s not about economics, and whether the Church should have money, or even whether or not the Church might have goods and services that it offers for a fee.
What this Gospel is about are the sacrifices of the temple, the animal sacrifices, and that the Lord Jesus is bringing this system to an end.
His own sacrifice, his giving up his life on the cross, will become the sacrifice of the new temple. The sacrifices of the old temple come to an end when the sacrifice of Christ’s life is offered.
It is this sacrifice that we witness and receive in the Mass, for this is what the Eucharist really and truly is- Christ gives his life for us, to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
The sacrifices of the old temple obscured or distracted from the sacrifice of Christ and this is why God in Christ brought them to an end. They were pale substitutes for the real sacrifice.
And in this, we might discern a lesson. Is there something that we have come to expect in our worship, indeed in our way of life, that obscures Christ or distracts us from him? Is Christ at the center of our lives, or his divine presence shoved off to the side somewhere, so that our concerns and causes can seize the center.
Is Christ the central focus of this temple, of this act of worship- or is someone or something else?
Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest Christian witnesses of the 20th century once remarked that often times Christians think that the real predicament we face is a choice between God and the devil. True, she observed, but the devil works out this choice with great cunning and subtlety, insinuating that we choose between God and ourselves- and once we have chosen to make ourselves the center of our lives, then the devil has us under his control.
So, ask yourself, what is at the center of your temple, of this temple? Is it Jesus Christ or someone or something else?