This Sunday Ordinary Time is again superseded, this time by one of the Church’s most surprising feasts: the Dedication of St. John Lateran. What is this feast, and why is it more important than our Ordinary-Time journey through the Gospel? In fact, it is a feast that takes us deep into our own identity as members of the Church.
The Lateran was in ancient times the palace of a great Roman family, the Laterani. By the time of Constantine (early fourth century) it was in the hands of the Emperor; Constantine gave it to the Popes, who lived there for a thousand years, up until Avignon (the fourteenth century). There, for example, were the great Ecumenical Councils of the medieval Church – just as more recently they have been at the Vatican, where the Popes now reside.
There too, naturally, was and remains the Cathedral of the Pope, bishop of Rome. St. Peter’s is, for obvious reasons, his preferred Church for ceremony, but the Lateran is his actual seat, or cathedral. The Cathedral has burned and been rebuilt (896 and 1360), and its name changed from The Savior to St. John’s, after the Benedictine monastery next door.
But it remains, as it says on the wall, Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater, et caput: “Of all the churches, of the city and of the world, the mother and the head.” To Catholics I need not explain why the Pope’s church is the most important Church. The deeper question is why a church building is of such importance anyway.
Years ago a Protestant friend had his little girl sing to my wife and I, “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.” True enough. The Church is the people. So who cares about the buildings?
Oddly enough, Jesus himself cared about buildings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple. He says of this building, “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and John quotes the Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The reading quickly shifts keys. Asked for a sign, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.” Jesus himself is the true temple, the true “house” for which zeal should consume us, the true dwelling place of God. The Church is not principally a building, but his body.
So why did he care about what they were doing in “the temple area”?
And then, too, we are his body. Our reading from First Corinthians says to the people, who are the Church, “You are God’s building. . . . You are the temple of God . . . . The Spirit of God dwells in you.” He even presses the metaphor, “like a wise master builder I laid a foundation.”
Jesus is the Church. We are the Church. So who cares about the building?
The key is in the first reading, from Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells us of a vision. This is not reality – but it reveals reality.
He sees “the temple,” with “water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple” and from “the altar.” “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah” – into dry lands – “and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live. . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.”
The temple is, first, a vision of Jesus himself, source of living waters, source of life. Life flows out from the temple – just as we receive life from the sacraments that dwell there.
And then, too, it is a vision of us, the Church. “Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” Those who receive the life-giving waters from the altar themselves become full of life, and life giving.
So yes, the Church is Jesus, his Body and all its members. “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.”
But this is a mystery worth dwelling on. We celebrate the buildings – and, today, the “mother and head” of all such buildings – because they remind us that life flows from the altar (from Christ), and that his life is poured into all those gathered around the altar (I, and you, and we).
Ezekiel’s vision trains us to see the building as a powerful vision of this reality.
How could we more consciously reverence the altar and the life that flows to the people from it?