Today, the Church remembers the dedication of the great basilica church of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The Lateran Basilica is the cathedral church of the Holy Father, as he is bishop of Rome. The magnificent building stands on land that was given to the bishops of Rome by the Emperor Constantine. Remember, it was during the reign of the Emperor Constantine that the laws restricting the practice of the Church’s faith were removed from Roman law and the Church went from being an illegal cult, whose profession of faith was considered an act of treason, to being the favored religion of the Roman emperor.
This changed the Church for good and for grief.
One of the most arresting features of the Basilica of St. John Lateran are the monumental statues of the twelve apostles that stand as if they are supporting the ceiling of the church. Larger than life and full of dramatic intensity, the sculptures show the Apostles holding the instruments of their martyrdom. The Apostles are represented not as they were on earth but how they are in heaven.
Remember, the faith we profess is the apostolic faith. We believe and practice the faith that the Apostles believed and practiced. St. John Lateran shows our connection to the Apostles in stone. The Holy Father and the bishops reveal this connection in the flesh.
The Scriptures today just sing glory to God.
Our first Scripture, from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, presents a fantastic vision of the great temple of Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s vision beholds not an earthly building but the temple of heaven where the angels and saints offer praise and thanksgiving to almighty God.
Ezekiel foresees the day when this heavenly temple will reveal itself in our world. It is from this temple that a great, living, giving river will flow, which will impart healing and abundant life to the world. And we know in Christ that what Ezekiel saw was not simply a building but a body—the Body of Christ. Christ’s body is the temple of God, and it is on the cross that this truth is revealed in its fullest intensity. From Christ’s pierced side his divine life flows into the sacraments of the Church; it is from this river of divine life that the sacraments emerge, and the sacraments of the Church are what impart healing and abundant life to the world.
This is the meaning of the prophecy of Ezekiel.
The Apostle Paul testifies that the “spirit of God” dwells in us, a Holy Spirit that makes each of us a temple of the Lord. What does this mean? It means that as we receive the Blessed Sacrament, we become bearers of the divine presence. Remember, the purpose of the great temple of Jerusalem was not simply to be a cultural monument; it was to be a place where God would dwell with his people. It was the place where the divine presence of the Lord met his people.
This is what happens in us as we receive the Blessed Sacrament. The Blessed Sacrament is not just a symbol of Christ; it is the divine presence of Christ himself. When we receive the Blessed Sacrament, we take into ourselves the divine presence of Christ and become, as St. Paul testifies, temples of the Lord! The Blessed Sacrament is given to us in a form that we can see and receive as food and drink. By accepting Christ’s divine life within us, we can become ever more like him and bear his divine presence into the world.
When Mass concludes and the priest announces that you should “go in peace,” he is not just signaling to you that “time’s up, your obligation has been fulfilled, and now you can go have brunch.” The priest is saying: go out into the world and bring the divine presence of Christ that you bear within yourself to others. Be Christ for others, for the real and true presence of Christ dwells in you!
Finally, we have this magnificent Gospel, an excerpt from the Gospel of John.
The scene depicted in this Gospel is known as the cleansing of the temple. Oftentimes, this text is understood as being about Christ’s fury at the commercialization of religion. Commercialization of religion is dangerous business, but it is not what this story is all about. What is happening is Christ signaling the end of the sacrificial system that was integral to the worship of the temple. Remember, God was glorified and petitioned in the temple of Jerusalem through the offering of ritual sacrifices. God in Christ ends this and makes himself the sacrifice.
This is what the Mass reveals to us. God has become the temple, the altar, the priest, and the sacrifice; and it is through his sacrifice, which is the gift of Christ’s divine life, that he offers us holy communion with his divine life. The sacrifices of the old temple are no longer needed because God has given us a new sacrifice, which Christ offers to us—and the sacrifice is his own divine life.
I know this all sounds very mysterious and mystical. Our modern minds may struggle to grasp the full implications of what I am telling you. But know this: the worship of the Church is temple worship. We participate in the Mass in the temple of Christ’s Body, offered on the altar of the cross, by Christ the high priest, who sacrifices—that is, gives to us—his divine life. This divine life, this sacrifice, is the Blessed Sacrament.
We do not gather here for a lecture or for discussion or to meet our neighbors. We do not come here simply to sing songs and study the Bible as literature. We do not come here to memorialize Christ as if he is a great man who died long ago. This is not just an assembly hall.
Instead, we gather for worship in the temple of Christ. This is what this church building that surrounds us is for and what it is meant to signify. This is Christ’s temple where in this tabernacle the divine presence dwells, and upon this altar the sacrifice is offered, and from this sanctuary the divine and living presence of Christ is given and received.
Today, we celebrate the dedication of an earthly temple, but more than this, we remember that it is here in this place that heaven meets earth, and we enter into the great and holy temple of Christ the Lord!
This piece was originally published on November 9, 2018, in the Word on Fire Blog.