The Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
Today the Catholic Church celebrates in a solemn fashion the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of the See of Rome, and as such, according to the inscription on the facade above the front doors, OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT, Mother and Head of all churches of the city and of the world. But this inscription points us to the first of the meanings of this feast, which is to honor God for his gift to the Church of the See of Peter and his perpetual primacy in the universal church. This Petrine primacy is the divinely established gift, guarantee and ground of the indestructible unity of Christ’s Church as the source of salvation for the nations, until Christ will come again to claim His bride and establish his glorious reign with her at his side forever.
The readings lead us deeper into the meaning of this feast, focusing our attention on, for instance, the water that flows from the temple in Ezekiel, the teaching of Paul that we are God’s final temple, and the zeal of Jesus for His Father’s house and its holiness, Zeal for your house will consume me.
The reading from Ezekiel first reveals the life giving grace that will flow out of God’s holiest temple. That temple is ultimately the human body of Christ, God’s perfect temple which gives life to all who draw from it its medicinal and life giving fruit: “for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary; their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
Likewise, every Christian temple on earth is a symbol of that Heavenly reality, the full Body of Christ, the New Jerusalem, which is the Universal Church in her final glory This heavenly Temple, the New Jerusalem, the full Mystical Body of Christ is described in the Book of Revelations:
“ He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God.”
So every Christian church, but especially this mother and head of all churches, points beyond itself, beyond space and time, to the heavenly Church, the Communion of Saints united in and through their bridegroom and head forever in the eternal liturgy of Heaven.
Moreover, this particular feast takes place most appropriately in this final month of the Church year as the liturgy directs our attention to the consummation of the Church when Christ will return in glory to judge man and establish his kingdom forever. The whole Church on earth looks forward with longing and hope to take her place at his side where she will reign forever with her Lord and Master, Bridegroom and God.
That heavenly company of saints and angels, which is the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Church in Glory, is foretold already in the reading from Ezekiel whose imagery is found again in the Book of Revelation. But in Revelations, it becomes clear that Christ is Himself the source of this life, and that the river is His Spirit from Whom he eternally gives life to his followers. Moreover, the vision of Revelations adds another detail, that the city’s structure, its very foundation includes the 12 apostles, and by extension the whole of the Communion of Saints, for there are 12 gates facing in the four direction of the earth, representing the 12 tribes of the New Israel, which now includes all nations, for through these gates they enter and are identified as the true wealth and treasure of the nations who are brought to him by his apostles.
But if the feast of this mother of all churches in this final month of the Church year raises our minds and hearts to heaven, and raises the desire in our hearts to be part of that heavenly Communion, at the same time it directs us to another aspect of this mystery, that we too, each of us, as Paul says in the second reading, is God’s temple, and for that reason every church reminds us not only of the heavenly Church, but also of the microcosm of that great church which resides in every single member of the Church by virtue of their baptism.
When Jesus cleanses the temple, the disciples understand that he is fulfilling the Scriptures which state, Zeal for your house will consume me. But here again, the house that Christ ultimately will be consumed to cleanse is not the temple in Jerusalem, but the much greater temple which is identified by Paul with the souls of His disciples, from whom He, Jesus, will construct the New Jerusalem, the final temple of God’s glory. Recall once again the beautiful words of Paul: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.” [I Cor. 3: 9]
This mirrors the Gospel’s statement that zeal for God’s House consumes the heart of Jesus, and we are that house because we belong to His Body.
Yes, that is the deeper mystery we celebrate whenever we celebrate the dedication of a Church. Each of us is, by God’s grace, the temple of God. The mystery of the Church, of which we are part, has this aspect of the microcosm and macrocosm, the individual soul and the greater communion of saints. God is truly worshiped in the countless temples constituted by the hearts of believers, just as there are so many individual church buildings where the sacrifice is offered in Christ, and yet all of this offers but one single sacrifice, and forms but one great Church united in its head.
But for the praise of our hearts, the sacrifice offered in our hearts and in our churches to be worthy of that great heavenly liturgy which is replicated sacramentally on the altars of our churches, and spiritually on the altars of our hearts, we to must be cleansed by the One who is our true High priest and the only worthy offering we make to God. The Gospel which recounts Jesus’ cleansing of the temple cannot be without significance for ourselves, that the Lord must cleanse these temples, our souls and bodies, so they be capable of truly and effectively entering into the great heavenly liturgy, offered here now on sacramental altars, which already participates in that heavenly liturgy, as an anticipation of that greater and endless reality in Heaven.
Only Christ can rebuild the temple which is his body, which we are part of through our Baptism. Only Christ can cleanse that temple and make it worthy of His Spirit. The beauty of the churches in which we worship together as the Communion of Saints should give us a deep longing for the Glorious Church and the eternal liturgy celebrated in heaven. But at the same time they remind us how precious the micro-temple of our souls are to God, and how beautifully they can be and should be adorned in order to serve their ultimate purpose, to be God’s dwelling place where we are privileged to worship Him already here on earth, just as we hope to do one day unceasingly in the eternal feast of Heaven.