Sunday Sermon for November 9, 2014, the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran in Rome
Readings: Ez 47:1-2. 8-9, 12; 1Cor 3:9c-11, 16-17; Jn 2:13-22
Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of a church building that many people have never heard of or have no idea of its significance. In Rome there are four major basilicas, the dedication of each is celebrated universally. These four are St. Peter, St. Mary Major, St. Paul, and St. John Lateran. Each of these buildings is of significance, but St John Lateran is actually the Cathedral church of Rome. In other words, St. John’s, not St. Peter’s is actually the Pope’s Cathedral. It is, therefore, the mother church of all Catholics and ranks above all of the other basilicas, hence, it has the title of an Archbasilica.
Before saying anything else, I need to point out that there is no Saint named St. John Lateran. The church itself is named for St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, but the ground upon which it is built was the palace of the Laterani family which was donated to the Church by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.
Each parish church can be dedicated in a special ceremony which is then celebrated annually on the anniversary of the dedication. This dedication is to demonstrate that the building is to be employed solely for the purposes of the worship of God and the sanctification of souls. In the first reading we are shown the water which flows out from under the altar, beginning as a trickle and becoming a river that can be crossed only by swimming. Water is often a symbol of God’s grace; in this case, a demonstration that grace flows from the altar of God.
However, for Christians this grace is even greater than that which was shown to Ezekiel because on our altars the sacrifice of Jesus is perpetuated and the grace that flows from His redeeming sacrifice is poured out to the people of God and into the world from the altar of sacrifice. Ezekiel was told that the water from the altar flows into the salt sea and makes it fresh. This can be understood as the grace of God interacting with the world, but most importantly, it implies the impact God’s grace has upon the souls of those who receive it.
This brings us to the next important reason why the Church celebrates the dedications of these buildings: because the church building is to be an exterior reflection of our souls. In the Gospel our Lord speaks of His own Body as a temple and in the second reading St. Paul reminds us that we are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Because we are temples of the Lord and are called to be holy, our bodies and our souls are to reflect the holiness and the beauty that we would expect to find in the church building. There have been some very ugly churches built which one has to ask what it reflects, but ask yourself what you think a church ought to look like. It is made for the glory and the honor of God and it should reflect that fact. Not only do you want the outside of the church to be reflect the dignity of its holy purpose, but you especially want the inside to be clean, beautiful, and glorious for the One Who resides there.
If this is what we want the church building to be, we must apply the same standards to our bodies and souls. Each of us is made in the image of God, so there is not specific body type that is more fitting for a temple than another. God made you the way He wanted so that you would reflect His glory and His holiness. His grace at work within you should flow through you and radiate out from within you. We need to keep our souls pure and beautiful for this holy purpose.
Lest we are confused about the idea of being a temple, we need to make a clear distinction. In Greek there are two words for “temple” one which describes the huge complex and one which describes a small shrine. The word our Lord uses for the temple of His Body is the same word St. Paul uses for the temple of your body. In Greek it is the word naos which means a shrine. If we were to apply this to a church building, it would imply the sanctuary area where the altar and the tabernacle are found. Perhaps in the Jewish Temple we might say that it could refer to the Holy of Holies. In baptism you were dedicated to Him to be a temple of His glory; He dwells within you. As we celebrate today the dedication of this beautiful Archbasilica, remember your own dignity as a holy temple for the Lord.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.