So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling of God in the Spirit.(Ephesians 2:19-22)
Peace of Christ be upon you all.
The Mother Church of all churches is the Saint John Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of the Holy Father as he is bishop of Rome. The celebration of the dedication of the Basilica in the liturgy of the Church occurs on the ninth day in the month of November. I have chosen, in this month, to unpack the beauties of this Holy dwelling of God and share with you its spiritual importance and how they should reflect in the daily events of our lives – our relationship with God and one another.
One of the supposed watersheds in history is the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity. History records that thegloriousBasilica of St. John Lateranis erected on the Lateran Hill in Rome and was giftedto the bishop of Rome by the great emperor (Constantine) who built it in about 324 AD. He legalized Christianity in about 312 AD and made it possible for Christians to worship publicly for the first time after series of persecutions on the Church.
A good look at the Basilica has a number of arresting features jumping at us. One of the most,is the sheer size of the building, it is nothing short of massive. St. John Lateran was the first place built for public Christian worship in the City of Rome and so all the laws constraining the practice of the Church’s belief were expunged from Roman law. The gigantic nature of the church speaks of the magnificence and awe of God;He is mighty and great (see Ps 147:5 – great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure; Jeremiah 10:6 – There is none like You, O Lord; You are great, and great is Your name in might; 1 Chronicles 29:11 – Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, indeed everything that is in the heavens and the earth; Yours is the dominion, O LORD, and You exalt Yourself as head over all). However, it spells out something pivotal about the witnessing of Christians during the persecution (notably under the emperor Nero, in the Great Fire of Rome) and after the legalization of Christianity. The huge stones and sculptures are a statement today that we are and always will be courageously prophetic, and publicly vocal in our witness of faith. Our open witness is a great message that nothing can cow us and we no longer hide in anxiety of torture or rejection. This is the communication to all and sundry from the outstanding Lateran Basilica, our mother Church. In the wake of all that is plaguing the Church today, our mistakes as a people do not make us succumb to bullying from external forces and shifting allegiance to them. Reflecting on the structure of the Basilica and its dedication can be a reminder of what our faith stands for and the one in whom our faith is, Jesus himself.
Another great feature we immediately notice is the epic statues of the twelve apostles that stand at the top of the church. The effigies show the Apostles holding the tools of their martyrdom reminding us that the faith we profess is the Apostolic Faith – ‘I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ as we profess in our creed. The faith that the Apostles professed – You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt 16:16);Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel (John 1:49); Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69); My Lord and My God (John 20:28) – is the same faith we profess and live by. St. John Lateran reminds us of the Church as a mother who has been teaching and feeding us with the same unadulterated faith as received from the hands of her master and Lord. The unity and binding force of each of us is premised on this faith – the apostolic faith.
Again, the Basilica communicates something to us about the sacramental life of the Church. Looking at it, one can easily see the columns and the exquisitely carved pilasters holding the entire giant structure. Some of the marble materials used to construct them were taken from other imperial monuments in Rome that were used to adorn the cenotaphs of the pagan emperors. Those elements are symbols of the establishment that attempted to destroy Christianity but through the grace of Baptism, they are converted into a beautiful part of the Church.
In the Old Testament Scriptures, the prophet Ezekiel gets aneccentric vision of the temple of Jerusalem. He sees this heavenly temple and anticipates the day when this blissful temple will reveal itself in our world. It is from this temple that a great, life giving water will flow to bring healing and abundant life to the world. This vision of Ezekiel will be fulfilled in the very Body of Christ; his body is the temple of God (John 2:21) and it was on the cross that this truth was revealed in its completeststrength. When the lance was thrust into him, it was from his pierced side that divine life flowed into the Sacraments of the Church and it is the Sacraments of the Church that confer healing and copious life to the world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in defining what Sacrament is, puts it a very fine way, ‘Sacraments are powers that comes forth from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving’ (CCC 1116). The Church has always been a mix ‘saints’ and sinners who dispose themselves to the mercy of God.In the sacrament of baptism, what was once earthly becomes consecrated; what was irreligious, is now intenselyfused into the body of Christ.
How about the Tabernacle which houses the Most Sacred Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ? The Holy Eucharist is the deepest assurance of the “Lord being with you”, a tacit fulfilment of the Lord’s words in Matthew’s Gospel (28:20) “I am with you always to the close of the age.”
The Apostle Paul in his letteraffirms that God’s spirit dwells in each of us, to make us a temple of the Lord. Like the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, It means that each time we are privileged to receive the Blessed Sacrament we become conveyers of the divine presence. We embody in our being the purpose of the Jerusalem Temple; the city of the living God, the high place where God would dwell with his people; the ground of amalgamation between the divine and the human. However, what kind of temple are we? The true temple where proper worship and sacrifice of God is the order or a temple which has become a monument of commercialization that needed the cleansing of Jesus?
The temple of Jerusalem was the place where offering of ritual sacrifices were made to God (see John 4:20) but God in Christ ends this and makes himself the sacrifice and the place for sacrifice. He becomes the temple of God, and Paul in his letters describes the Church as the Body of Christ. This means that in the great sacrifice of the Holy Mass, Jesus has become the temple, the altar, the priest, and the sacrifice, and he offers us his divine life in Holy Communion. The sacrifices of the old temple are no longer needed because God has given us a new sacrifice which Christ offers to us and the sacrifice is his own divine life.
Therefore, we do not gather for anything profane in the ‘temple of Christ’, his body – the Church but for worship. This is what the church building is for and what it is meant to signify. If we belong to the body of Christ, and by his sharing of divine life with us, our body, the temple of the Lord cannot be for sacrilegious intent but a true dwelling for the Lord.
Remember, that the mammoth pillars and sculptures of the Basilica are a statement to everyone that we are and always will be bravely prophetic, in the witness of our faith especially in these times of our Nation’s politics and the trials of the Church.
Also, the sacramental life of the Church reminds us of our own dedication and consecration. Through the waters of baptism, a radical healing was enacted and we are conscripted for holiness. If we want the church the body of Christ to be Holy, then we the members must be holy.
†Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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