Happy feast day everybody!
This weekend we celebrate the dedication of a particular church – the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It may seem odd to have a universal feast day for a basilica church, but this is no ordinary church. If you suspected that this means something important, then you are right. There is a profound meaning to what we celebrate today. It has a lot to do with how we live out our faith.
The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the Cathedral church of Rome. So just like our Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, it is the bishop’s church – the mother church for the diocese. Every diocese has a cathedral – the church where the bishop presides.
But the Basilica of St. John Lateran is unique among all churches. It is the cathedral church of Rome and it is the Pope’s church. Just as the Pope is the symbol of the unity of all Christians, so St. John Lateran Basilica is the symbol of the unity of all churches.
Today I want to talk a bit about the idea of the church, both as the people of God as well as the place where the people gather for worship. Both are important.
St. Paul gave a beautiful description of God’s project on our behalf. He used a metaphor to describe us when he wrote, “you are God’s building.” “You are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you.” When we think of the beauty and magnificence of the temple in Jerusalem as the bible describes it, or the great basilicas of the world, we know that the work of God in us is even more magnificent. God desires to form us as his saints. God’s project is to perfect us in love, to make us holy, that we might dwell with him in glory for all eternity.
God’s project started for us with our baptism. We were set apart in that moment and made into God’s holy people. That’s what holy actually means – “set apart” for a special purpose. Baptism sets us apart as God’s chosen ones, members of the divine family, heirs to the promises of Christ. It is an amazing dignity that God gives to us as those “living stones” of the temple of God.
God’s project continues within us. We are invited to a saving and sacramental relationship with Jesus Christ and with his Church. We live that sacramental life through the regular participation in Sunday Mass and in the Holy Days. Every time we gather as church we are formed a bit more by the Word of God that we proclaim. Each time we celebrate as church we are nourished by Jesus, the Bread of Life, on our pilgrim journey to heaven.
Word and Sacrament are an essential foundation of the spiritual life. This is why the first precept of the Church is that we attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. The precepts of the Church are like a basic minimum requirement for the spiritual life. Kind of like food, water, and air are basic requirements for physical life. The first precept – attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation - is based in the 10 commandments where the Lord instructs his people to Keep Holy the Sabbath Day.
Our God loves us and gives us everything that is good for us. Our God forms us and feeds us through His Holy Word and through the Sacraments. It is the project of the lifetime granted to us – showing us the way to eternal life. It points to the great reality that we perceive in part in this life and will understand fully in the next life - that “we are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in us.”
God’s project is made tangible for us through the buildings in which we worship. God’s revelation of heavenly realities to us is incarnational. That is to say, God shows us what we need to know in concrete ways that we can see, hear, touch, and taste.
Think of the Old Testament revelation of how to worship. In the desert God instructed the Israelites about how to construct the tent of meeting, the Holy of Holies, and the Ark of the Covenant. Even as they wandered in the desert, this was a substantial and glorious place for the people to worship.
Later on, the people built the temple in Jerusalem. The temple served as a symbol for the presence of God with the people.. In the temple there was the place for the people to gather in prayer. Then there was the place where the priests offered sacrifice. Then there was the Holy of Holies where “shekinah glory” of God dwelt. The gospel today tells us that Jesus had zeal for the House of God – the temple. So much so that he cleansed the temple of the money-changers and prepared the way for the new heavenly temple, not made by human hands.
All of our churches today build upon this tradition. Our churches here in Marion County, as well as Catholic churches throughout the world, relate to the temple of Jerusalem. Just like the temple, we have a large space for the people to gather. Just like the temple, we have an altar and a priest who offers sacrifice on that altar. Just like the temple, we have a Holy of Holies, the tabernacle, where the real presence of Christ dwells. These buildings are special because the Church, the bride of Christ the bridegroom, gathers here for the wedding feast of the Lamb. These buildings are essential because it is here more than anywhere else that we are sanctified by the sacraments, formed by the Word of God and nourished by the Eucharist.
I tell you truly, Jesus loves this church. He has great zeal for it. And so should we. It is here in this place that Jesus invites us to allow His Word to take flesh in us. It is here that we, the church, become the sacrament of salvation for the world. It is here that we discover the dignity of our great mission to bring the gospel of Jesus to all peoples, lands, and nations.
So, as you can see, this celebration of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica is important. It helps us understand who we are as the Church and the mission that is set before us.
So, happy feast day everybody!