09 November 2008

On the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

For our homiletics class, I prepared and delivered this homily to my seminarian brothers this past week. I've touched it up a bit here and there but it's substantially the same as it was delivered. Being that the Feast of the Dedication of the Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome doesn't exactly speak to a whole lot of people, I tried to work in the significance of this event for the history of the Church.

As to how it was received: my professor said that the greatest thing about my reflection on this gospel passage was that I'd written a paper on it. He then said the worst thing about it was that I'd written a paper on it. What can I say ...


Jesus' words in today’s Gospel were used to charge Jesus at his trial. They are dangerous words. To the Jews of the time, they could be explained away as the ranting of a deluded maniac at best; at worst, they were treason and blasphemy deserving the penalty of death.

This, of course, is a very different sort of understanding than the usual one. We usually hear it described as the exercise of righteous anger. Jesus, they say, was correcting the sinful use of the sacred precincts of the temple for transacting business, and the Jews were just steamed because he called them out on their failure to reverence the sacred.

Well, not exactly. Since this event took place near Passover, there were literally tens of thousands of pilgrims coming to the Temple to participate in this feast, and there was simply no way each of them could bring their own lamb or kid to sacrifice all the way from home. It would have made an already chaotic situation unbearably messy. So, in order to fulfill their religious obligation, they had to purchase animals on site. And they had to pay the Temple tax, but they couldn’t use coins with the image of Caesar—so they needed to change their money into a currency that could be used for sacred purposes. There was a suitable place ready-made to provide for these needs already—the huge plaza known as the Temple Mount, recently completed under the patronage of Herod (the “46 years” it took to build the “Temple” actually refer to this architectural modification to the Temple building itself).

So what was Jesus getting at if this wasn’t about shoveling manure next to the Temple?

Contrary to what we often hear, this incident should not be referred to as the “Cleansing of the Temple” but the “Abrogation (or Rejection) of the Temple.” The words that accompany Jesus’ actions explain why this is. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What the Jews do not understand, but which the later Resurrection fully clarifies, is that Jesus is speaking “of the temple of his body.” In effect, John is saying that Jesus puts his own person on par with the Temple; indeed, he’s going even further than that: he himself makes the Temple obsolete. He is now the definitive dwelling place of God among men. Jesus’ Resurrection passes judgment on the Temple and its rituals. It declares that HE is the full revelation of the Father’s love to the world, NOT the Temple.

You can understand why the earlier Gospel writers didn’t put this claim on the lips of Jesus himself, but phrased it as a charge by his accusers during his trial. It didn’t exactly contribute to Jewish-Christian relations! Only John attributes them to Jesus himself—after a healthy distance between Jews and Christians had come about some decades after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

We read in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that the elders and the scribes brought charges against St. Stephen for “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God,” and for constantly “saying things against this holy place [i.e. the Temple] and the law [i.e. the Torah].” For they had heard him claim that “this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.”

These ideas weren’t incidental to the Gospel; they were on the lips of our savior and the first martyr within hours of their deaths. They were of such importance that they clearly found their way into the Church’s proclamation almost immediately.

So those early Jewish converts to Christianity knew the radical decision it took to follow Jesus. Everything had made sense until this Jesus guy had come along. Within a few decades of the Resurrection, Christians and Jews no longer worshipped together. Family members were set against each other by their decision to resist or join this new way of faith. Jews were worshipping side by side with Gentiles. Everything was new. Faithful Jews despised them; the Jewish authorities persecuted, imprisoned, and killed them, thinking they were rendering service to God. Converts from Judaism to Christianity were no longer covered under the legal allowance for religions older than Rome, because Christianity was considered a new religion—and so the Romans could legally persecute them as well. And for all practical purposes it was like they had broken with the thousand years of tradition that stretched from Moses to Judas Maccabeus. These Jewish convents must have asked themselves again and again, “what in God’s name are we doing?

Fast forward two hundred and fifty years to the dedication of the church of St. John Lateran. Things couldn’t look more different. Christianity isn’t being persecuted and reviled because the emperor, Constantine, has become a Christian. Sixty years after that, Christianity would be the official religion of the entire empire. In just a few hundred years, this despised and persecuted religion had flooded the Roman Empire.

Imagine the joy of the Christian people on receiving the news that what had been withheld from them for so long was finally being granted. It was the granting of a wish soaked in the blood of the countless martyrs, known and unknown, throughout the hundreds of years of Christian existence. If they had been at a loss for words, they might have prayed with today’s Psalm:

The Lord of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come! Behold the deeds of the Lord,
the astounding things he has wrought on earth.

For us, the basilica of St. John Lateran stands as a reminder of their joy. It’s easy to lose sight of this memory underneath the many layers of meaning this church has acquired in the 1700 years of its existence. We have to hold fast to its meaning for us as a monument to the faith and radical commitment of all those who staked everything on Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.

And what fueled this faith? What was the source of their commitment? It was what came to mind every time they asked that question, “what in God’s name are we doing?” It was the conviction that each disciple had to follow his crucified master. They knew that if they were to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the Temple of the Lord, they had to be chiseled, and shaped, and smoothed in order to be fitted into their appointed places within this Temple. They were living stones willing to undergo the process of transformation, as the Scriptures encouraged them:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

While for some this meant heroic acts of generous, self-sacrificing love, for the ordinary people of the time it simply meant having an extraordinary love for God and neighbor.

So it’s very appropriate that this feast day follows only a week after the celebration of All Saints. It is another reminder that we have inherited absolutely everything we need to be extraordinary in love. Are we making use of that inheritance, or do we behave like spoiled children who are ungrateful when every need has been provided for them?

The seminary should be what the Christian community could be. There are all sorts of men here that constantly inspire me with their curiosity, their enthusiasm, and their conviction. Seek those men out. Befriend them. Try to be that kind of man for your brothers. Allow God to stretch your desire for his kingdom. Believe with every fiber of your being that the Holy Spirit is here, now, speaking to you in the Scriptures, giving you desires for faithfulness and glory, of which you had never dreamed? Are you willing to desire things that because of your weakness are so impossible that they become a manifestation of God’s power in the world?

There will come a time when our posterity will think upon us as we think upon our own fathers in the faith. What will the Christian people yet to come say about us? Will they remember our extraordinary love? Will they remember and rejoice over the revelation of God’s power that took place through our weakness? Will they be glad that we weren’t content to rest on our laurels and live off our savings? Will they recognize that we didn’t float with the current and allow the secular humanist agenda to compromise the Gospel? Will the Church flourish on account of our faithfulness?

We are standing on the shoulders of giants. And if we don’t love more than most, if we’re not even able to do the little things with great love, we have to ask ourselves:

What excuse do we have?

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