Words on the Word
Dedication of the Lateran
If we feel perplexed by today’s feast, it is not without good reason. It is ostensibly about the dedication of a building, yet our readings shy away from earthly structures. ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ With these words Christ seems to say that the temple, God’s House, is dispensed with in his Testament. He does not, after all, speak of new cultic spaces taking its place: he does not foretell the building of basilicas. The very notion of a house is abandoned. The new sanctuary is that ‘of his body’. When he speaks of ‘raising it up’, he speaks of resurrection. If we turn from the Gospel to our second reading, the message we get is quite as unworldly. ‘You are God’s temple’, says St Paul. The space of divine dispensation, now, is built with living stones. The Church is a community, built on the foundation of Christ Jesus. It is a spiritual reality, exalted far above bricks and mortar. And the Prophet? Can he help? True, Ezekiel sets out from the temple in Jerusalem, but his vision is transposed into heavenly spheres. No man-made house would stand long if constructed on the wellspring of a river. Ezekiel’s vision is a vision of signs. The temple represents the paradise of old. From there, you remember, a fountain poured forth sweet, life-giving water over the face of all the earth, to make it fruitful and blessed. Ezekiel gives us a vision of the end-times. He points beyond this world to the world that is to come, the end that recapitulates beginnings. The cumulative evidence of our readings, then, is impressive. It dismisses earthly places of worship. These are seen as irrelevant at best; at worst, as harmful distractions. We are led into a realm of symbols where Christ is the temple and we, the redeemed, are mysteriously one in his body. Yet here we are, on this 9 October, celebrating the dedication of a firmly three-dimensional construction, still standing. What are we to make of it?
The church we now call St John Lateran has a venerable history. The complex to which the first basilica belonged was home to the Laterani, a consular family whose rank can be inferred from the fact that Fausta, a woman of that house, was married to Constantine, the emperor. When it came into Constantine’s hands, just after 300 AD, the Lateran’s destiny was sealed. Having pledged his troth to Christ, that great ruler of men set the Lateran aside as a centre of worship. Dedicated by Pope St Sylvester in 324, it became the capital’s baptismal church, the seat of its bishop, the head of a network of churches drawn up to mark the very fabric of Rome with the sign of the Glorious Cross. As cathedral of the Empire’s first city, the Lateran won the title that adorns it to this day: Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput; ‘Mother and Head of every church of the City of Rome and throughout the whole world’. It is as such that we celebrate the Lateran today. It is ‘Mother and Head’ of our own places of worship, including this enchanting abbey church. This is all very well, you may say, as a fussy kind of footnote; but are we not still in the quandary we started with? Is this too solid cathedral not in conflict with the Scriptures’ insistence that the real church is one not made by men’s hands?
The tension is real. It is crucial. It alone, in fact, makes sense of the feast we are keeping. Ours is an historical religion. Our faith is founded on things that happened, on placeable acts of God in time. Christ came to save this world. He poured himself out for it. He pours himself out still. The Church is the privileged place of his redemptive gift. Fromt within it, his grace gushes forth like a mighty stream bringing healing, health, and teeming life in its wake. When we enter those graced waters, we enter a communion that transforms our being. What matters about the Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, is this: by its dedication, the mystical Church was shown, urbi & orbi, to be palpable and real. It was placed on the map. Constantine marked the Lateran out as a place of intersection. ‘Here’, he proclaimed, ‘our earthly city encounters that of heaven; here God’s kingdom impinges on ours.’ Like Jacob he discerned, in this transient world, the very house of God. When we recall his act of solemn dedication, we, too, say: God is with us! We give thanks for God’s mercy touching our lives in the Church, when we receive the sacraments, when we meet as church to worship, to serve. The Lateran, Mother of all churches, stands as a pledge of our ecclesial communion, making it visible. It is a wonderful gift! Yet it points beyond itself. That is the lesson taught us by our readings. A touch of Noli me tangere, of ‘Do not cling to me’, marks all manifestations of grace in this world. They are our viaticum now, but we must not get too attached; we must feed on them to purify our love and our longing to see God as he is, to become like him, in an eternal embrace of love. While striving to conduct our pilgrimage on earth with integrity, in faith, we must set our eyes on our homeland in heaven. Such is the message proclaimed by this feast. It is a message of hope. May it give joy, zest, and lightness to our Christian lives.