Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Saint John Lateran Cathedral in Rome. That seems a little obscure to us, I know, but it’s an important feast for the Church because it is a celebration of Church and a reflection on what Church is. The Lateran Cathedral is the cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome. As bishop of the diocese, the Lateran Cathedral is the pope’s church. Because of that, Saint John Lateran is considered to be the mother church of the Catholic faithful. So it’s an important church, and it gives us cause to celebrate the Church as a whole, so this feast is celebrated throughout the world, and when it falls on Sunday, it takes the place of the Ordinary Time Sunday. So that’s why we’re celebrating the Dedication of Saint John Lateran today.
So let’s take a look at what Church (big “C”) is. The Church is a reality that is at the same time concrete and experiential and heavenly and eternal. The concrete structures of it are the nuts and bolts that make it work. The building itself, the parish staff, the rubrics of liturgy and the holy books, as well as teachings and dogma and sacraments – all of these are things we can touch, or learn or work with. But there is another layer, one more experiential. These include the people as a whole, on the way to holiness; the Word at work in believers; the effects of grace mediated through the sacraments; the Gospel lived out day by day and the love of God shown through Charity. And in yet another layer, the Church is not just here on earth. It’s in heaven, celebrated among the Communion of Saints and sung by the choirs of angels. And finally it is eternal, not just limited to our own puny ideas of time and space, but all wrapped up in the Mind of God who is ever-present, all-powerful and all-knowing. The Church is an incredible reality that has been pondered by people much more saintly and learned than I, and a reality that will be advanced and celebrated for ages yet to come.
The Scriptures today are a beautiful meditation on Church. The gospel is a little jarring, to be honest. Jesus has this famous dust-up with the temple merchants and officials. A lot of people find this disturbing, because it jars their view of Jesus as a peaceful man. For the record, I don’t think Jesus was about peace the way we think of peace. He was definitely more about zeal for the truth, for justice, and for proper worship of God, all of which is in play here. Those merchants were doing a necessary task, honestly. People needed to pay the temple tax, and they needed the proper coinage to do it, so there had to be money changers. People needed to make sacrifice, and they needed unblemished animals for it, so there had to be people selling animals. What didn’t need to happen was for these people to be taking advantage of the poor, and charging more than they should have. That was dishonest and unjust and Jesus was sick of it.
But even more than that, this whole dishonest structure was a view of Church that Jesus was saying was completely unnecessary now. The kingdom of God is at hand, we’ve been hearing that in the readings for months now, and so this unjust and corrupt view of Church needed to come to an end. So in his zeal for the real house of God, Jesus turns the old stuff upside-down. That’s what’s going on here. Saint Paul underscores the similar notion to the people of Corinth in today’s first reading. What is the Church? He says, “YOU are God’s building!” He and the Apostles have laid the foundation, and we are building it up, becoming a Temple of the Holy Spirit. There is an entirely new view of Church going on here, and it’s one that we should celebrate and have zeal for.
So today we celebrate Church; we peel back the Church’s many layers, touching and learning the concrete, living the experiential, asking for the intercession of the heavenly, and yearning to be caught up in the eternal. The Church is our Mother who has given us birth in the Spirit and who nurtures us toward eternal life. The river of God’s life flows forth from the Church to baptize and sanctify the whole world unto the One who created it all. The Church has its foundation in Christ, who also raises it up to eternity. Blessed are all those who find their life in its sanctuary.