Why celebrate the feast of a building?
Dedication of the Basilica of St John Lateran
Today is the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of St John Lateran. So perhaps we should ask why do we commemorate the dedication of a church building, and one that happened in fourth-century Rome? For us in the Ordinariate it is probably a feast that we were not used to celebrating as Anglicans.
So why? First, because St. John Lateran is no ordinary church—it’s the cathedral church of the Pope and still known as “the mother of all the world’s churches.” It is dedicated to Christ our Saviour and Saint John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist. It is the place where the Pope’s Cathedra is housed – the chair which represents his authority given to him by Christ. It is the oldest of the papal basilicas and it is, I believe, the oldest church in the West – consecrated in 324 AD.
So one of the things this feast points to is the unity we all enjoy together as Catholics. Catholics are found all over the world, from many nations, from many different cultures, from many different language groups, all with our local customs and traditions. But we are all united by one Faith and one Baptism and all recognise the authority and unifying importance given by our Lord to the Apostle Peter. So this feast also reminds us of the common respect we Catholics have for the Pope, who is the successor of St Peter, the Rock of the Church.
But more than that, because God has from all time intended the church building to be a symbol of His Church and our bodies. This is what the readings for today’s feast invite us to consider. God’s prototype for the church is the Jerusalem Temple, described in this week’s First Reading and Psalm. It is God’s “holy dwelling,” site of His presence in our midst, source of “living waters”—of all life and blessing.
There is a tendency today for people to say that Church buildings do not really matter that much. They are just convenient places to assemble for collective worship. And people will also add that it would be better to spend surplus cash on the poor rather than spend it on fancy buildings. This way of thinking is understandable on the surface, but scratch it a little deeper and we find the argument crumbles.
This way of thinking largely since the 1960s has been fashionable and has seen Catholic churches being built that are very functional, bare and unadorned. Paradoxically while spending on church architecture has decreased, spending on people’s own homes has increased. Our own residences have become more and more luxuriously kitted out, but Catholic church’s over the time became more and more spartan and cheaply made. St John Vianney was a great example to us, he never neglected the poor, but neither did he neglect his church, the vestments and the holy vessels of the altar. His home consisted of a simple chair and table, very little else. But delighted spend what money he had on beautiful chalices and vestments to honour Our Lord, while not neglecting honouring the Lord through supporting the poor.
Churches are reflections of the heavenly city where the eternal and perfect worship of God takes place by Angels and Saints; and we in the Mass participate in this heavenly liturgy which is going on in heaven. Our worship is imperfect, yet we, by grace, participate in this heavenly liturgy. Churches should then lift our hearts to think of heaven – they should not be mere functional buildings. They should be places of beauty and through symbolism point to the divine truth.
The Temple was the prototype for the Church building symbolising the “dwelling place of God Himself”. Our Church buildings are also the dwelling place of God as they house the tabernacle where our Saviour Jesus Christ is truly present under the sign of bread.
But some will say, didn’t our Saviour say He would tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days – not replacing it with another building but His own Body in the Resurrection? Indeed that is the case, but that does not mean Church buildings are not needed or not important, but that they have a deeper meaning.
God intended the Temple to give way to the Body of Christ. That’s what our Lord’s words and actions in today’s Gospel are intended to dramatize. Christ’s Body is now the dwelling of God’s “glory” among us (see John 1:14). It’s the new source of living waters (John 4:10,14; 7:37-39; 19:34), the living bread (John 6:51), the new sanctuary where people will worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:21,23). By Baptism, we are joined to His Body in the Church (see 1 Corinthians 12:13).
The Church building points us to Christ’s Body, His living Temple, which is the whole Church, the Body of Christ. In our Epistle today, it says the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and makes us “God’s building…the temple of God” (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9). So in a way it is the other way round. We, the Body of Christ, members of the Church are to be made into God’s building! But how can we imagine what that is if we have no inspiring buildings?
Jesus drove out the sellers of oxen, sheep and doves, signalling an end to the animal sacrifices that formed the worship of the old Temple. In the spiritual worship of the new Temple, we offer our bodies—our whole beings—as a living sacrifice (see Romans 12:1). Like living stones (see 1 Peter 2:5) built on the cornerstone of Christ (see Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11), together we are called to build up the new Temple of God, the Church.
There is a connection between our attitudes towards Church buildings, and our attitudes towards the Temple of our bodies, and also the Church as the Body of Christ. It cannot be too surprising that if our approach to these earthly Church buildings is very functional, then the way we treat one another starts becoming functional too. The temptation of thinking of others in terms of function only is very common in our time. People think of their bodies not as temples of the Holy Spirit, but as a biological machine to perform various functions for us, but equally something that can be disposed of when no longer useful.
It is also connected to the way we think of the Church – it very common to find Catholics talking about the Church as if it were merely a human institution that performs certain functions but which can be changed if we want it to do something differently.
This functionalist approach is not holy. God our Maker has given us our bodies not merely as functional machines, they are part of the gift of our being made in the image of God. Our outward bodies are fully united with our souls. What we do with our bodies will affect our souls. The two are one, just as Christ’s two natures, divine and human, are fully one. Our bodies are sacred and imbued with a sacred dignity that cannot be taken away. And the Church too is no mere functional organisation; the Church is the mystical Body of Christ – it too is both visible and invisible, both human and divine. All these things are beautifully connected together – this is why when we enter a beautiful Church which is configured to the truth divinely revealed to us, that our hearts are lifted to the Lord. We sense His Presence and we fall in adoration before Him. In that moment of adoration we become what God wants us to be, we are united to the Communion of Saints in heaven and to the countless hosts of Angels.
But lastly, as the Jerusalem Temple was, so the Church will always be: under construction—until at last it is perfected in the New Jerusalem, our mother Church, come down from heaven. So yes our bodies are not perfect and won’t be until the Day of Resurrection. So the Church is not perfect either and won’t be until the end of time. Nevertheless we look forward in hope to our coming Saviour Jesus Christ, knowing that by the Holy Spirit, and through His Grace, we are being made into the living Temple of His Glory.
AMEN. IH Nov 2014