This week we have an unusual feast on our liturgical calendar, the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, a large basilica which is the episcopal seat of the bishop of Rome, the pope. At first glance it may seem like we are feting a person, and then at a second look it may seem that we are lauding a building. In some ways it is really both and neither! The land upon which the basilica sits was donated in the fourth century by the family of the wife of Constantine, the Laterani's, and the church was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist; therefore the basilica was called St. John Lateran. So yes, there are saints involved in the name of the church. However, we are not celebrating them, but rather the dedication of this basilica, the first Catholic basilica ever built in Rome. But lest we think it is about the stone and mortar building, it is not. Rather we are celebrating what it represents, which is the New Jerusalem to which we all look forward. We are celebrating that we are the Body of Christ, a living building created by God the Father, brought to life by Jesus, and guided by the Holy Spirit until all is fulfilled in the Heavenly Jerusalem. Just as the saints remind us that we can attain the holiness we desire, sacred places such as the basilica remind us of the presence of God within our community of faith.
The readings from this liturgical feast teach us this very message. The first reading is about the temple of God, prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel. (Ez 47:1-2,8-9,12) It describes a perfect temple which has verdant gardens that bear abundant fruit and it has water flowing near it which is life-sustaining for every living creature. It is a place of life because it is the temple of God. Ezekiel is reminding his people of the way it was intended to be for us at creation. He is also reminding the people of what is to come when they are back in their own land with their sacred place of worship restored to them after their exile. He is writing of abundance not necessarily of the material kind, but of the spiritual kind. Restored friendship with God is a wealth beyond all telling. But as Christians we can see that there is also a prophetic allusion to the water of life which comes to us in baptism.
In the New Testament the term used for church is koinonia which means a Spirit-filled body of believers. The Church is people, not mortar and stone, and it is a living entity, guided and led by the Holy Spirit who is imparted to each of us through the sacraments beginning with Baptism. We are one Church, headed by Jesus Christ. Therefore, on this feast day it is in the second reading from St. Paul that our understanding of church is brought into perspective. He said in no uncertain terms that we are God’s building! He wrote that the temple is a living body, built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1Cor 3:16-17) We are the Church, the living Body of Christ, and we are holy. No one can take that from us. Furthermore, we need to realize that each part of this living body is important. It is not only about certain parts of the Church or certain members: all are important to the life of the Church. Each of us is a temple of God and each of us is of incredible importance to God. He would not have created us if we were not precious to Him.
But just as the people of the Old Testament found themselves in exile, we need to be aware that we, too, are in a kind of exile. We long for the perfection of our true home, Heaven. This is why we have such a hard time when a loved one dies. It is not only that we miss them, but it is also that they are where we want to be but are not, at least not yet. We may not recognize it as such, but we do feel a sense of being left behind when a loved one gets to Heaven before we do. We are still slogging along in this life with its joys and sorrows, with its mess and imperfections, and so the absence of those whom we love feels all the more acute; we do love life, and we do see its beauty, but the innermost part of our heart longs for Heaven. And indeed it should because the source of this longing is love: we want to be with those whom we love who have gone before us, and simultaneously we want to be forever with our God whose love is beyond imagining, and whose love we want to return.
At the end of our liturgical year this should be where our attention lies. During this time the tension is heightened between anticipating the end times and yet loving what we have been given here in this life. While we yearn for Heaven, we also appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the world in which we presently live. Indeed, we are meant to savor the relationships which we have while we are here. What the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran shows us, then, is that God is present in the love between us and our friends and relatives, but especially He is to be found in and through the community of faith to which we belong. God has given us a wonderful gift in the Church, the body of believers. This is our family both here on this earth and already established in Heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This family to which we belong through baptism is imperfect because its members are imperfect, but it is also holy because it is filled with the presence of God. The living temple of the Church has an important function, which is to assist in the work of building the Kingdom. Because we are a flesh and blood Church it is about more than function, however. It means that we are a people, beloved by God, who need to stand in support of one another, especially when we are assailed by the world because we believe. We must stand firm in our faith, sometimes relying on other believers to withstand the assault, all the while clinging to the Holy Spirit who is with us. When we see others in the Body in need of assistance, such as the poor or the ill, we must reach out, remembering they are our brothers and sisters. However, the Body of Christ is called to go further than simply helping our own. We are also to help those who are not members of the Body. If we are not welcoming to them, how do we expect them to see the love of God within the Body? In other words, unless we are open with our love and mercy, if we only minister to those like ourselves, there would be no evangelization, no sharing of the message and reality of God’s love. Furthermore, Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to reach out to the stranger. This does not mean approval of ways that are contrary to the gospel, but it does mean that we are to be kind and compassionate to all the children of God, just as Jesus was. The entire world needs Jesus, and God desires that all of His children be united as one. There is no chance of that if we are not welcoming.
This is why honoring the dedication of a basilica is actually important. The basilica of St. John Lateran represents the whole of the Church. Every house of worship is a place of celebration of our God, the gifts He gives, and of His people. The Church is where we find God’s amazing love, healing, and mercy; it is also where He missions us to go out and make disciples of the nations, even to the ends of the earth. (paraphrase of Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8) We are inspired by the beauty and the sanctity of what goes on in the structure of mortar and stone, but also in what comes forth from it. The living building, which is the Body of Christ, brings out to the world the reality of the One who binds us together, especially seeking out those in most need. This living building, our Church, is indeed joined together in the love of Christ.
May we rejoice in being one through baptism! May we have hearts of mercy and love, reaching out to those who are not yet members of the Body of Christ as well as those who are! May we bring healing, forgiveness, and the faith we have received out to the world! May we be courageous in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, burying the dead with reverence, and working toward justice for those who are suffering! And may we have joy in our mission of sharing our gifts with others, and gratitude for the great gift of being one in the Lord! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The photos are all mine. The first one is the façade of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It was taken in 2001 using film. The second photo is of the ceiling in the apse of St. John Lateran.
The third photo was taken by digital camera just outside of Taos, New Mexico.
Following next is an icon called Our Lady of the New Advent Gate of Heaven by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose this because in this icon Mary represents the dawn of the New Jerusalem. She intercedes for the Church and is the icon of the New Jerusalem for which we yearn. The icon can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-the-new-advent-gate-of-heaven-003-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Finally the last two photos were also taken with film a number of years ago. The first of the pair was taken in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. It is of the mission church, San Francisco de Asis. The last photo is a winter scene, the Rio de los Frijoles at Bandelier National Monument, just outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Heart Speaks to Heart