Nov 9, 2014: Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome

Introduction

The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome. This is not St. Peter’s, but it is the Pope’s cathedral. Referred to as “the mother and mistress of all churches of Rome and the world” (omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput), it was the first basilica to be built after Emperor Constantine’s edict of Milan, in 313 AD, which granted Christians legal recognition and freedom to practice their religion.

It was to Pope Melchiade (311-314) that Constantine gave the palace on Monte
Celio, formerly property of the patrician Laterani family (hence the Basilica’s designation “Lateran”). The Basilica of St. John was erected on the Lateran Hill; it is still the cathedral of Rome and was the Pope’s official residence until the 15th century.

The observance of this feast was initially confined to the city of Rome; then, beginning in 1565, it was extended to all the Churches of the Roman rite.

When we celebrate the dedication of this church, we celebrate all other churches as well.

1st Reading – Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12

The angel brought me
back to the entrance of the temple,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east,
for the façade of the temple was toward the east;
the water flowed down from the southern side of the temple,
south of the altar.
He led me outside by the north gate,
and around to the outer gate facing the east,
where I saw water trickling from the southern side.
He said to me,
“This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah,
and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”

Our first reading recounts a vision of the temple that was granted to the prophet Ezekiel.

The angel brought me back to the entrance of the temple, and I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east, 

Ezekiel is brought to the door of the temple, and from there he is able to observe a stream of water flowing from the threshold of the temple.

for the facade of the temple was toward the east;

Temples were constructed in such a way as to face the east. Because the east is the horizon above which the new dawn of promise rises, ancient tradition held that it was the direction from which salvation comes.

the water flowed down from the southern side of the temple, south of the altar. He led me outside by the north gate, and around to the outer gate facing the east, where I saw water trickling from the southern side.

The course the water takes is quite complicated. More important for this reading are the meaning of its source and the effects it is able to achieve.

He said to me, “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.

The waters flow from the east to the Arabah (‘ărābâ), a desert plain that stretches south into the Rift Valley, where it becomes the southern depression of the Dead Sea.  It is into this sea that the waters flow.

The Dead Sea is thirteen hundred feet below sea level, the lowest point on the surface of the earth. Seven million tons of water flow into it daily. Because it has no outlet, the constant evaporation of water results in a high concentration of salt, chlorides, and bromides.

Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.

In this vision, the waters that flow from the temple miraculously purify these stagnant waters, allowing creatures to live within them and thrive.

Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail. 

Plants too are able to grow on the banks of the sea and to produce fruits.

Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. 

What was once a place of death is now a place of burgeoning life and productivity. This image recalls the primordial river that flowed out of Eden.  It too divided into four branches and watered all the surrounding land, making it fertile (Genesis 2:10-14).

Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”

The passage continues to make even greater claims about the effects of the water. Not only is the water itself transformative, causing plants to bear fruit as food, but the leaves of the trees that produce the fruit possess curative powers.

The saving power of God goes out from the temple in a series of concentric circles: first the water from the sanctuary itself, then whatever the water touches, and finally the nourishing fruits and medicinal leaves produced by that which the water touched. The power of the presence of God radiates throughout creation.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17

Brothers and sisters:
You are God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me,
like a wise master builder I laid a foundation,
and another is building upon it.
But each one must be careful how he builds upon it,
for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there,
namely, Jesus Christ.

Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

In our second reading today, Saint Paul characterizes the community at Corinth as the temple of God.

Brothers and sisters: You are God’s building. 

Paul is using one of his favorite metaphors for the Church: God’s building, the temple in which God dwells.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a
foundation, and another is building upon it.

Speaking without pride but from the humble acknowledgment of God’s goodness, Paul declares that by the grace of God he was chosen to be the wise architect (sophós architéktōn) of the temple.

But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.

Every step in the building process is important, but none is more pivotal than the laying of the foundation. The entire structure is dependent upon it.

Paul boldly claims that through his preaching of the gospel, he laid the foundation, and the foundation is Christ.

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

It is clear Paul is not thinking of a material building, but rather the collection of people who gather in God’s name. Paul declares that the Corinthians are this temple.

Just as the presence of God made the Temple in Jerusalem holy, so it is the presence of the Spirit of God that makes this new temple holy, and the Spirit dwells in all of the members.

If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Those who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem were liable to death. Outside the inner court of the Temple, a sign was posted that excluded Gentiles from entering and warned of severe consequences for violation of this prohibition. Why such a harsh penalty? Because the Temple of God is holy, and only those people and things that have been set aside as holy can enter it.

With this regulation in mind, Paul plays with the meaning of the Greek word phtheírō, which can be translated both “to corrupt” and “to destroy.” Those who corrupt or defile God’s temple will be destroyed.  It is up to the Corinthians to determine whether the temple of God, which they are, will continue to be holy or whether it might be defiled.

Gospel – John 2:13-22

Since the Passover of the Jews was near,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,
as well as the money-changers seated there.
He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
and spilled the coins of the money-changers
and overturned their tables,
and to those who sold doves he said,
“Take these out of here,
and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
Zeal for your house will consume me.
At this the Jews answered and said to him,
“What sign can you show us for doing this?”
Jesus answered and said to them,
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews said,
“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,
and you will raise it up in three days?”
But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.
Therefore, when he was raised from the dead,
his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.

The story of the cleansing of the Temple occurs Mark’s gospel at the close of Jesus’ public ministry (11:15-18), whereas John’s gospel, our reading for today, places it just after Jesus’ first miracle (turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana). It is unclear whether these are separate occurrences or two accounts of the same event.

Regardless, today’s reading revolves around the theme of the temple. Jesus’ actions there are acted-out prophecy, and his play on words constitutes prophetic forthtelling.

Since the Passover of the Jews was near, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Passover was the most important of the Jewish feasts. According to the Law of Moses, every male Israelite over the age of 12 had to “appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16) which resulted in the custom of making a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.

He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.

Roman coins, the currency of the day, were stamped with the head of Caesar (who was considered a deity) and sometimes with the images of other pagan gods. As such, they were unfit for paying the temple tax, and so money-changing became indispensable.

In addition, most pilgrims were not able to bring animals along for sacrifice. This lead to a second necessary service: the selling of animals in the temple precincts.

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, 

The cords were likely those used by the merchants to lead the animals into the temple area. Jesus probably used the whip to drive out the animals — it is unlikely that he used it on the merchants themselves.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have witnessed this spectacle many times throughout his life. Why did he wait until now to take action? This is the first Passover after Jesus’ baptism. He is taking upon himself the public character of a prophet. It is possible that the whip played a part in this aspect of the scene, serving as a symbol of authority rather than an instrument for inflicting damage.

Note that Jesus did not drive anyone into the temple area — he only drove out those who profaned it. Notice also that he doesn’t deprive anyone of their possessions, he simply causes them to relocate.

with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Why is Jesus so irate? He accused the merchants of making the Temple a marketplace. However, a part of it really was a marketplace. Conducted appropriately, the transactions were legitimate and conducted in an appropriate area. They were certainly essential supports of the temple service.

One interpretation is that, like any trading practice, this market was susceptible to potential abuses. Some commentators suggest that the trading booths were brought into the temple area from outside so that the temple could charge them rent for being there, and fees for searching the animals sold in order to certify that they were without blemish (and therefore fit for sacrificial use). Given the number of pilgrims that flooded the city each year, this could have been a considerable source of revenue.

His disciples recalled the words of scripture, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

A reference to Psalm 69:9, which states that zeal for the house of God makes the psalmist vulnerable to the scorn and abuse of others. This, combined with Zechariah 14:21, which states that at the end-time there would be no need for merchants in the house of the Lord, provides a second explanation for Jesus’ behavior: in his new public ministry as a prophet, he is proclaiming that the end-time has arrived.

It is, in fact, a double claim. First, by driving out the merchants, he is announcing that the time of fulfillment has come, and as such, merchants are no longer needed or welcome at the house of the Lord. Second, he identifies God as his Father. Aside from being an astounding claim in itself, this affirms his authority in the matter.

It is possible that both interpretations are correct: the merchants are corrupt and Jesus is also announcing that the messianic age has arrived.

At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

The Jews referred to here are most likely the temple authorities, who demand that Jesus justify his actions.

Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

Jesus employs a clever use of language in his answer. In this passage, two words for “temple”: hierón appears when the entire temple area is intended (previously, in verses 14-15); Jesus uses naós here, when he is referring to his body. The Jewish authorities mistakenly use naós in a general sense, though in Jesus’ words, it is used here very specifically.

Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.

Since Jesus is portrayed as using naós, the word for temple proper or sanctuary, in referring to his body, he is actually predicting his death and resurrection. This corresponds to the allusion to Zechariah, because by replacing the temple sacrifice with his own suffering and death, there is no longer a need for sacrificial animals at the temple.

The encounter ends with a statement about the disciples recalling this episode and the words Jesus spoke. It would require their experience of the risen Lord for them to be able to gain insight into what has occurred.

Connections and Themes

The Temple.  The Temple was important because it was believed to be the place on earth where God dwelt in the midst of the people. It was God’s presence, not the worship performed by human beings, that made this a sacred site. There is something incarnational about the presence of God. It is not merely an abstract reality. It allows itself to be manifested in the concrete, in something that has shape and character. This presence reveals itself in the various cultural forms of the people, and the people respond to God’s presence in their own cultural ways.

We are the Temple of God.  As important as the temple building may be, it is only a building. Paul insists that we are the temple of God; we are the manifestation of God in the world today. The Spirit of God dwells in us, making the believing community the living temple of God. This is an incredible privilege as well as an exacting challenge. If we do not obscure this reality, the glory of God will shine out from us. The community, not the building, will be the place where prayer and sacrifice are offered to God. It will be within the community that others will experience God’s saving presence. They will come to the community to be sanctified, to be made holy.

A Den of Thieves or Life-Giving Water?  Today’s readings provide us with two pictures of the temple of God, two characterizations of the community of believers. The picture in the gospel is a sobering one. The Temple has become a marketplace; the community has become so preoccupied with the business of the world that it has forgotten its identity. In a fury, Jesus upsets the worldly order that had been established and drives it out of the house of God. The vision from Ezekiel offers a very different picture. There we see water from the temple transforming everything in its path. As water flowed from the temple in Ezekiel’s vision, so grace flows from the temple that is the People of God.

Which image more closely characterizes the community of which we are a part? Are we able to refresh what was once brackish? Can we transform the wilderness into a place teeming with life? Can we make all things productive and fruitful? Can we heal what has been threatened with death? Is the community truly the presence of God in the world today? Or is it simply a site where ritual is performed but the concerns of God take second place to the affairs of the world? Will the zeal of Jesus be unleashed upon us? Do we need to be overturned in order to be reformed? As we celebrate the dedication of this sacred place, we are reminded that we are the temple of God, that we have been dedicated, that the Spirit of God has made us a living temple.

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