My fellow Christians, today is the birthday of this church, an occasion for celebration and rejoicing. We, however, ought to be the true and living temple of God. Nevertheless, Christians rightly commemorate this feast of the church, their mother, for they know that through her they were reborn in the spirit. At our first birth, we were vessels of God’s wrath; reborn, we became vessels of his mercy. Our first birth brought death to us, but our second restored us to life…
When Christ came, he banished the devil from our hearts, in order to build in them a temple for himself. Let us therefore do what we can with his help, so that our evil deeds will not deface that temple. For whoever does evil, does injury to Christ…
My fellow Christians, do we wish to celebrate joyfully the birth of this temple? Then let us not destroy the living temples of God in ourselves by works of evil. I shall speak clearly, so that all can understand. Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be.
Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified. Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: I shall live in them, I shall walk through their hearts.
St Caesarius of Arles, Office of Readings, Dedication of St. John Lateran
Reflection – We have a funny little liturgical moment in the Roman calendar today, when November 9 falls on a Sunday, and we all learn that the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Cathedral in Rome, the Pope’s proper cathedral church, has a liturgical precedence over the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
This is because the feast of a dedication of a church is actually a Feast of the Lord, liturgically, and as such ranks ahead of a Sunday in Ordinary Time. The same liturgical law applies to the feasts of the Transfiguration, the Triumph of the Cross, and the Presentation of the Lord (August 6, September 14, and February 2, respectively), all of which replace their respective Sundays.
The Lateran Cathedral’s dedication ranks as a feast because of its pre-eminence in Rome; it is the ‘mother church’ of all the Latin rite churches, not unlike how the Hagia Sofia is the mother church of all Byzantium, although we Catholics in general are so cut off from our own history and our sense of continuity with the universal Church and its extension in time and space that we have little appreciation for these matters, alas.
That, in fact, though is what this feast is meant to instil in us. It is a feast of the Lord because Christ lives in his Church. Caesarius of Arles in his day felt the strong need to emphasize the dwelling of Christ in the individual believer; I think in our time we need to say that of course (since it is true), but also to stress the corporate presence of Christ in and through the life of the whole body of believers.
It is this that we touch when we speak of the holiness of the building, of the visible sign and expression of that body of believers which is the body of the church extended in wood and stone, glass and marble. A church is four walls and a roof; but hallowed by the prayers of the body, consecrated by sacred ceremonies and rites, it becomes much more than that.
It becomes a sacramental sign of the fact that God has made his dwelling upon earth, that the ‘home of God is with men’ (Rev 21: 3), that God is not distant or remote or hard to find—He has come near us, and is with us, and abides within us.
Yes, the deepest reality of that abiding is the indwelling Spirit of God in the heart of a believer—this is what we mean by ‘sanctifying grace.’ But that indwelling Spirit, which in the Uncreated Trinity is the bond of Love between Father and Son, in created humanity is the bond of love fashioning us into a body. In our Catholic understanding, we cannot be ‘spiritual but not religious’, because it is the nature of the Spirit to bind us together (religio) into a body.
And so on this feast of the Lateran cathedral (so strange to us, so foreign), we are called to contemplate these realities. God has made his home with us; the Spirit of God is dwelling within us; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit; the work of the Spirit is to fashion us together into a house of God, a holy space on this earth where God is loved and worshipped, and his love for mankind is made visible.
The implications of this are profound and very challenging: our own individual call to moral and spiritual purity of heart, mind, and body; our call to be most concerned for unity of mind and heart as a Church; our call to make the Church in its concrete life express what it in fact is, a beautiful manifestation of the love of God in the world; our call above all to pour out our hearts in gratitude and praise to God for giving us this extraordinary gift of Himself, which creates in and among us the extraordinary gift of the Church; our call to cherish that gift and conform our lives in every aspect to that gift and all it means.