Monday, November 9, 2009

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

Most Catholics think of St. Peter’s as the pope’s main church, but this is not so. St. John Lateran is the pope’s church, the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome where the Bishop of Rome presides. The first basilica on the site was built in the fourth century when Constantine donated land he had received from the wealthy Lateran family. That structure and its successors suffered fire, earthquake and the ravages of war, but the Lateran remained the church where popes were consecrated until the popes returned from Avignon in the 14th century to find the church and the adjoining palace in ruins. Pope Innocent X commissioned the present structure in 1646. One of Rome’s most imposing churches, the Lateran’s towering facade is crowned with 15 colossal statues of Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and 12 doctors of the Church. Beneath its high altar rest the remains of the small wooden table on which tradition holds St. Peter himself celebrated Mass.

Unlike the commemorations of other Roman churches (St. Mary Major, August 5; Sts. Peter and Paul, November 18), this anniversary is a feast. The dedication of a church is a feast for all its parishioners. In a sense, St. John Lateran is the parish church of all Catholics, because it is the pope's cathedral. This church is the spiritual home of the people who are the Church.

"What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For, by believing they are hewn out, as it were, from mountains and forests, like stones and timber; but by catechizing, baptism and instruction they are, as it were, shaped, squared and planed by the hands of the workers and artisans. Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love" (St. Augustine, Sermon 36).

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint John (2.13-22)

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market! His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me. Then the Jews demanded of him, What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. The Jews replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days? But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

Among the most interesting and popular of series on television are programs portraying archaeological digs. Every so often there is a new find in the pyramids of Egypt. Archaeologists are constantly discovering new sites in the British Isles. In Australia, Aboriginal carvings and remains come to light, putting further back the eras of Aboriginal settlement on the continent. It is taken for granted by those following the discipline that the researchers will presume the importance of religion, which is to say, ritual and religious myth. If something cannot be easily categorized (as, say, a weapon, or an ornament, or some implement of everyday use) then it will be presumed to have a religious significance. From primal man up to the most advanced societies (in archaeological terms) a religious perspective is assumed even by the atheistic or agnostic archaeologist to be fundamental. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of human societies is the temple, the shrine, the religious site or locale of the presence of the deity. It is the means whereby the deity - whether minor or major - can in some sense be encountered. Thus does man typically think. He thinks of his gods, and he wants to be on good relations with them. The testimony of history and the human sciences is that the spirit of man yearns for the divine, and hopes that the divine will come to him. I suggest it is in this context that we ought understand the Judaeo-Christian revelation. God has made man to long for him, a longing which has been deeply frustrated by the original Fall, but which remains nevertheless. He longs for God, and prays repeatedly for his assistance. The remarkable thing is that out of history has come the testimony that God has intervened and chosen to stay with man. He has spoken to certain chosen ones, and has abided with a chosen people. He spoke to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. He promised to be with them and to regard their descendants as his own people. He spoke to Moses and the prophets, and promised to abide with his people as would a Husband with his spouse.

This was the meaning of that great institution, the Temple of Jerusalem. It was the heart of the nation because therein, in some altogether special way, abode the God of Israel. How Jesus Christ must have loved the Temple of Jerusalem! It was the house of his heavenly Father. In our Gospel passage today we see him making a whip of cords and physically driving all the buyers and sellers from the Temple precincts (John 2:13-22). It was his Father’s house! His action reinforces a signal testimony to the world offered by the revealed religion of Israel, that the great God had come to abide personally among men. The longings of the human heart as evidenced in the cultures and societies of the world, were in this way answered. God had come and had chosen to stay. But our passage tells us of a presence of God among us that was more wondrous still. We read that “the Jews demanded of him, What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. The Jews replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days? But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” The physical person of Jesus was the temple of God. Let us consider the marvel of this. If we look to the heavens with any understanding of the findings of astronomy, we cannot but take our breath away at the thought that this is the work of one only God. One almighty Being holds this ever-so-vast universe in his hands. He is, as he revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, the one who is. He is pure, pure Being without any qualification or limitation. The mystery of mysteries is that he, the great God, became man. Jesus Christ, a definite and therefore limited man, was the unlimited God incarnate. The second divine person, retaining his divine nature, took to himself a limited human nature. And so there walked the earth one who was God, and he it was who cleansed the Temple on this occasion. He himself was the Temple par excellence, and he had come to stay.

This same Jesus in all his human and divine reality abides now in the Church his body. Those who believe in him may encounter him in the life of the Church, especially in her preaching, teaching and her Sacraments. The greatest presence of God among men is the person of Jesus Christ, and the greatest presence of Jesus Christ among men is in the Eucharist. When we think of Jesus we ought think of the Eucharist, because Jesus here on earth is especially the Eucharistic Jesus. The Eucharistic Jesus abides in our churches, and there our hearts have their true object. On the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of John Lateran, let us renew our love for the Eucharistic Jesus, and for our churches where the Eucharistic Jesus constantly awaits us.

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