Dedication of St. John Lateran
[Scripture Readings: Ez 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; Jn 2:13-22 ]
Most Catholics think that St. Peter’s Basilica is the Pope’s parish church. It is not; St. John Lateran is his church. It is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome where the Bishop of Rome presides. Beneath its high altar are the remains of a small wooden table on which tradition tells us St. Peter himself celebrated Mass.
Church buildings have always stood out as a place of refuge. A refuge is a place of shelter from evil, a place that is stable and lasting. It is inside this place of refuge that one gets the sense that they are in touch with reality…ultimate reality. But every form of refuge has its price.
At the Lateran the price of refuge is symbolized in the bronze pillars near the altar of repose. They came from the pagan Temple of Jupiter. These symbolize the renunciation of illusions and submission to the truth. We’ve all experienced what it is like to know what is right to do, but be unable to will it. Rather than admit this strange weakness, we change what we know to suit what we do. Admitting our weakness is a very high price paid in the coin of our pride. In pride we try to cover up our weakness by extolling ourselves. When done often enough, we develop an aversion to what is greater than self; an aversion to God. Yet when the coin of pride is given away we find ourselves unburdened. We didn’t realize how much it had weighed upon us. This is how the truth makes us free. Perhaps humility is an empty pocket! For sure it is an empty hand! Most certainly it is living in the truth, because emptiness makes room for the truth. Living in the truth is our refuge.
Believing lies weighs us down; knowing the truth raises us up. Because the truth does this—because it perfects us—we love the truth and we freely submit ourselves in obedience to it. Zeal for the Lord’s house consumes us. Love binds what we know to the will to do it.
St. Augustine described the church buildings of the Lateran, of Holy Family, and of New Melleray when he wrote:
“What was done here, as these walls were rising, is reproduced when we bring together those who believe in Christ. For by believing they are hewn out… by catechizing, baptism, and instruction they were shape… Nevertheless, they do not make a house for the Lord until they are fitted together through love” .
Dedication of St. John Lateran
[Scripture Readings: Ez 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; Jn 2:13-22]
One hears it said these days that people who, go around repeating the familiar answers to life’s big questions need to commit themselves to a more thoughtful pondering of the questions. Dogmas, traditions, institutional structures, it is said, are all answers to life’s big questions—but these answers tend to harden into assumptions which then deaden our capacity to wonder, to seek, to discover life as the ever new, ever changing mystery it is. The really big questions of life—Why are we here? What does our life mean? What is our ultimate individual and collective destiny?—these questions, some would say, don’t require answers at all but are of value to us chiefly as questions. Accordingly, a truly engaged life consists in “living—the questions.” Life is a search and, it is in searching, that a person is truly alive.
Sadly, many people today are discovering that, over time, being “truly alive” in this way, can make a person truly alone. Friendship, when you think about it, is something two people share because there is a third thing they both love, and in loving that third thing, (that thing they love in common), they find and love one another. But if you meet a “seeker” of the type I’ve just described, and hoping to foster a friendship, you ask him what it is in life he truly loves, you’re likely to get an answer like this one attributed to the former Secretary of the U.N. Dag Hammarskjold, who once wrote: “I don’t know Who—or what—put the question. I don’t know when the question was put to me. I don’t even remember answering; the question, but at some moment I did answer . . . “Yes.” . . . to Someone . . . or . . . Something—and from that hour, I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender—had a goal.”
I don’t know if I’m ready to say that this much revered emperor of our time might be wearing no clothes but I look at that statement and I look at it again, and I look at it long and hard, and I ask myself: Just what sort of “surrender” are we talking about in which one is “surrendered” to an unnamed . . . someone . . . or something? Can a human heart which is given us in order to be given away to another PERSON—can a HUMAN heart really be said to be “surrendered” to a formless, unidentified “something” or “someone” who has no name? I wonder too, how much more “meaningful” did his life become after he realized he had said “yes” to . . . someone . . . or . . . something? He says his life, thereafter, had a “goal“, but, (pardon me again), I’m wondering, when a person’s life is surrendered to what can only be characterized as a “something” or a “someone“—or, whatever, does his life have a goal?
To a person who speaks this way, and many in our time speak this way, to such a person, I want to say: But, what if God Himself were to speak to you. And what if, speaking, God Himself, told you clearly and intelligibly who He is, told you his name, gave you his address on a street in Nazareth and in response to all the biggest questions in life, invited you to his house with the words “Come—come and see!” What if God revealed Himself to you so that you no longer had to grope in the darkness crying out for guidance to a nameless someone or something—or whatever?
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of the Mother Church of Christendom: St. John Lateran. We are not, thereby, celebrating a brick and mortar edifice. We are celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation by which God showed Himself to us in human flesh; showed Himself in the person of Jesus who is Head of His body the church which extends the grace and fruits of the incarnation in time and space in the form of dogmas, traditions and institutions, and even beautiful brick and mortar basilicas like St. John Lateran.
In the Spring of 2004 I stood in St. John Lateran Basilica with 30 other monks and nuns from 21 countries. Touring the basilica, we were ushered into the famous baptistry, maybe the largest baptismal font I’ve ever seen in my life, and I would be hard pressed to say which I found the more amazing spectacle: the ornately carved marble circular baptistry, or the circle of friends assembled around it: 30 people from the Philippines, France, Sri Lanka, China, the U.S., Nigeria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sweden, Australia, and Korea; all of us friends; loving one Lord and in Him finding and loving
one another; 30 people sharing one vibrant faith ever ancient and ever new, revealed to us in the flesh; in the person of one who was true man and true God; ever gentle and almighty Savior of the world, blessed forever and ever.