Sunday, November 9, 2008

Feast of Saint John Lateran

1. Today we celebrate the dedication of the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. It is the cathedral for the diocese of Rome (Saint Peter’s Basilica is the church in the Vatican and the location of the tomb of Saint Peter). The Church of Saint John is built on the Lateran Hill. It is reputed to be on the site of the house of the family of Saint Clement, the third pope. His family was wealthy and in those days of persecution used their home as the church. Later, the property was donated for the building of a proper church sometime after the legalization of Christianity in 313AD.
2. If you have ever been to a dedication of a church it is a wonderful ceremony in which to participate. The building is anointed with holy oils, most especially the altar. And the fragrance from the Sacred Chrism used to anoint the altar and walls lasts for a long time. It is the same oil used at the ordination of a priest to anoint his hands for sacrifice. It is the same oil used to seal those receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is also used at Baptism to recall that we are all anointed to be a priestly people of God, offering our whole selves in His service. Whenever I smell the Sacred Chrism, it brings me back to my ordination and the intense desire I had on that day to offer myself as a sacrifice in the person of Jesus Christ.
3. As I said, today we celebrate the dedication of a building. But not really. The Church of Saint John Lateran is beautiful, I am sure (although I have never been there). The Church building, however beautiful, is not really the thing that we are celebrating today. For the Church is not a building in the material sense of the word. As Saint Paul reminds us, you are God’s building. We, that is, all of us, you, me, the bishop, the Pope, everyone, we are the Church. It is true that the building stands a reminder to us of God’s presence. The beauty of the church building can draw our minds and hearts to God. The church can be a place of refuge from the storms of life. But the Catholic Church existed and flourished for more than three hundred years before they ever built Saint John’s. Just as the Catholic church existed before we ever built Saint Michael’s. And if something terrible happened and the Cathedral of Saint John Lateran were to burn down or fall apart, the Catholic Church would still stand. For the Body of Christ is not a collection of stone and steel, wood and marble. It is the family of God, redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb, united in the Eucharist: One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
4. That is what we are really celebrating today. In the first reading, Ezekial had a vision of the Temple of God, in which water flowed from the Sanctuary and became a great flood. This water is symbolic of Baptism. The Temple is Jesus. And as it goes forth, the gift of Baptism spreads through the whole world. And so it has happened. Look around. We have people of many different countries and cultures in our parish. And in fact, there are Catholics in almost every part of the world. We celebrate the same Mass. We hear the same scripture readings. We say the same rosary. We receive the same Precious Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. Although Jesus commanded His disciples to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the success of that work is due to the power of God. God has generously given us the gift of faith, and has made us one in Jesus Christ.
5. The Gospel reading, however, does present some difficulties. How do we interpret it in the light of today’s feast? Certainly we are not used to seeing Jesus get angry and push people around. Most of the time we might be tempted to think of Jesus as being a sort of soft quiet man- maybe even a pushover. Or maybe like a statue of Buddha- smiling but silent. But Jesus was probably powerfully built- carpenters had to be muscular. He was an electrifying preacher. He exuded authority in His teaching and healing. And today He got angry and drove the money changers out of the Temple. This action was a symbolic act meant to teach His disciples something about the Temple.
6. For one thing, the money changers were there because you could not use just any money to pay your Temple tax or buy an animal for sacrifice. They did not want any pagan coins being used for that purpose. And the animals were for sale because not everyone could raise the kinds of animals necessary for the sacrifice. Surely corruption had entered into the situation and one reason that Jesus drove them out was because they were not acting in a Holy Manner, befitting the Temple of God. In a like manner, our behavior in Church ought to be of a holy manner- and not focused on worldly things.
7. But another reason this reading is included today is that in knocking over the money changers, Jesus is also in a way knocking over that which separated the peoples of the world. All the gold belongs to Him. Any coin, regardless of whose image is on it, can be used to do good in the sight of God (just like any coin or talent can be used to do evil). In other words, all people are welcome in the Temple of God.
8. At the same time, Holiness is paramount. The welcome that Jesus gives is somewhat extreme. I read this week that Jesus does what He does with us because He loves us. His love is a consuming fire, it is passionate, it is intense, it demands response. He loves us the way we are but He is not content that we should turn away from Him and look for happiness anywhere else.
9. Today’s feast recalls that Jesus’ love is for all, and that in fact it has spread all over the world. And for our part, we rejoice and we look to one another to build each other up as the building of God.

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