Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It is known as “Mother and head of all churches on earth” because it was the original residence of the Pope. There is a formidable and significant stone inscription on the façade of the Basilica that reads: Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head.”
Steeped in historical significance
The basilica was built by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century AD and was dedicated on November 9, 324, by Pope Sylvester I. The anniversary of the dedication of this church has been observed since the 12th century. An added significance to this feast is the fact that the first Holy Year was proclaimed from this church in the year 1300.
The magnificent church was first called the Basilica of the Saviour but later was also dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, and so it acquired the name of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. When the papacy was transferred to Avignon for about a century, the condition of the Lateran deteriorated so greatly that when the Pope returned to Rome he lived in two other locations before finally settling adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he lives now.
In the course of its history, St. John Lateran suffered just about as many disasters and revivals as did the papacy it hosted. Sacked by Alaric in 408 and Genseric in 455, it was rebuilt by Pope Leo the Great (440-461), and centuries later by Pope Hadrian I (772-795). The basilica was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 896, and was again restored by Pope Sergius III (904-911). Later the church was heavily damaged by fires in 1308 and 1360. When the Popes returned from their sojourn in Avignon, France (1304-1377), they found their basilica and palace in such disrepair that they decided to transfer to the Vatican Basilica (also built by Constantine, it had until then served primarily as a pilgrimage church).
Several important relics are kept within the Lateran Basilica. The wooden altar on which St. Peter celebrated Mass while in Rome is believed to be inside the main altar. The heads of Saints Peter and Paul were once believed to be inside busts above the main altar. Part of the table on which the Last Supper was celebrated is said to be behind a bronze depiction of the Last Supper. At one time the basilica also contained the Holy Stairs on which Jesus is said to have walked during his trial in the house of Pontius Pilate. The stairs are marble and are now covered with wood to protect them. They are currently located in the former Lateran Palace. Pilgrims ascend them on their knees, contemplating Jesus’ Passion. As they ascend, drops of blood may be seen on the marble stairs beneath protective glass. The stairs were brought to Rome by Constantine’s mother Saint Helena.
Many important historic events have also taken place in St. John Lateran, including five Ecumenical Councils and many diocesan synods. In 1929 the Lateran Pacts, which established the territory and status of the State of Vatican City, were signed here between the Holy See and the Government of Italy.
A feast of the People of God
There are two dimensions to today’s feast: it is the celebration of a building that is the mother church of Christendom. We focus our minds and hearts on the unity and love of the whole Church that finds expression in our fidelity to the one who walks in Peter’s shoes: the Pope. It is also the feast of the People of God who form the Church. The Second Vatican Council helps us to focus our attention on the mystery of the Church – the sign of unity and the instrument of Christ’s peace on earth.
The Cleansing of the Temple
The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple seems at first to be a bit out of place for the feast of the dedication of the Mother Church of Rome. John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22) stands in sharp contrast to the other Gospel accounts of this powerful story (Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). In the Synoptic Gospels, this same scene takes place at the end of the “Palm Sunday Procession” into the holy city. With the people shouting out in triumph, he entered into the Temple area. But this time, not to do homage but to challenge the Temple and its leaders. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and upset the stalls of those selling birds and animals for sacrifice. It was an electrifying moment. He quoted the Scriptures: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46; Isaiah 56:6-7; Jeremiah 7:11).
John uses this incident to give meaning to Jesus’ entire ministry and he is alone among the evangelists in linking the cleansing of the Temple of Jerusalem with the prediction of its destruction. This destruction is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and its forms of worship. John says that Jesus was speaking about his own body rather than the temple building (2:21). The new Temple will be his resurrected Body. In the new Covenant, true worship will be “in Christ.”
John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple is quite provocative for many reasons. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus quotes from Psalm 68:10: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” I have preferred to translate that verse: “I am filled with a burning love for your house…” The Temple was not an emporium (a mall!) but his Father’s house. Like the prophets before him, Jesus tried to awaken the hearts of his people. Their prayer had to come from the heart; their sacrifices, however good and true, were no substitute for justice.
The Messiah would purify Israel’s worship but John goes beyond that to suggest an even more radical change: Israel’s worship will not only be purified, it will also be replaced. The presence of God in Israel shall be replaced by the presence of God in the Temple which is the Body of Jesus. These startling words and actions of Jesus in the Temple took on new meaning for later generations of Christians.
One intriguing aspect of this story is the portrait of an angry Jesus contained in the cleansing scenes. These provocative images can give way to two extremes in our own image of God’s Messiah. Some people wish to transform an otherwise passive Christ pictured above many altars into a whip-cracking revolutionary. Others prefer to excise any human qualities of Jesus and paint a very meek, bland character who would never upset anyone.
The errors of the old extreme, however, do not justify a new extremism. Jesus was not exclusively – not even primarily – concerned with social reform. Jesus was filled with a deep devotion and love for his Father and the things of his Father. His disciples recognized in Jesus a passionate figure – one who was committed to life and to losing it for the sake of truth and fidelity.
Have we given in to these extremes in our own understanding of and relationship with Jesus? Are we passionate about anything in our lives today? Are they the right things? Are we filled with a deep and burning love for the things of God and for his Son, Jesus?
On this feast of the dedication of the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, let us pray for a strengthening of our communion with each other and with all God’s people across the face of the earth. May the Lord purify the sanctuary of our hearts, and build us up as living stones into a holy temple. May we be filled with consuming zeal for the house of the Lord, our Church, and our churches. May our communion with the Church of Rome confirm us as a vibrant, loving, hospitable universal Church, a place of welcome for all who seek God’s face.
[The readings for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica are: Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:9b-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22.]