The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the first of the four Roman Basilicas both in time and in significance: it is the first church mentioned in the records of the Holy See and the one in which the heads of both St. Peter and St. Paul were deposited, and it seems to have been the first official church of the bishops of Rome. It was built in the year 315 at the same time as the triumphal arch of Constantine the Great, when Christianity had just been proclaimed to be not only socially acceptable -- and therefore to be free from further persecution -- but also the personal religion of the Emperor Constantine himself and the official religion of the state. The Lateran basilica is still the seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome; it is an enduring witness to Jesus’ words ‘I have overcome the world’; and it is indeed, the mother-church of Western Christianity.
Obviously, therefore, the anniversary of the dedication of this basilica is an occasion of great symbolic rejoicing for us, for it is indeed our duty and our joy to rejoice before God for His great goodness to His People throughout the ages:
Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of Your countenance. (Psalm 89:15)
Today’s Scripture readings are specially chosen to both widen and deepen our rejoicing so as to embrace not only the significance of the Lateran Basilica itself, but also and indeed supremely, the glorious spiritual blessings bestowed on us in and through Mother Church.
In our gospel reading St. John tells us that Jesus drove the merchants out of the Temple with a whip since they were, He said, dishonouring ‘His Father’s house’. Matthew and Mark speak of the same event with greater detail, because Matthew (21:13) tells us that Jesus declared:
Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'? But you have made it a den of thieves;
and Mark (11:17), while agreeing with Matthew, also adds that Jesus saw His Father’s house as, essentially: A house of prayer for all nations.
Thanks therefore to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we can understand why Jesus so strongly – even violently -- objected to the Temple being made into a ‘den of thieves’ or, as John said, ‘a marketplace’:
He began to drive out those selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who were selling doves, (and here, the spiritual Apostle John– the one most likely to appreciate and share Our Blessed Lord’s sense of outrage – adds, ch.2 v.16) saying, “Take these (things) out of here, and stop making My Father’s house a marketplace.”
How could it have been otherwise? Solomon, we are told, having consecrated the first Temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, prayed most beautifully:
May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which You said, 'My name shall be there,' that You may hear the prayer which Your servant makes toward this place. (1 Kings 8:29-30)
However, Jesus’ love for His Father’s house was immeasurably more Personal, holier, and intense, than that of King Solomon, and in this moment of spontaneous expression of such love we should note something essential about Jesus which is constantly being overlooked or deliberately ignored, indeed, even openly attacked by those who seek to deprive us of the essentially sacrificial component and commitment of Christian ‘agape’:
I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing
and to turn it into a merely humanistic promotion, peddled as ‘love’ -- easy, soft and cosy -- for all people in whatever circumstances. Why is it less objectionable before public opinion today to seriously offend rather than to suitably punish? … how can so many serious criminals be freed early, on parole, to offend again, even to the extent of killing again, without any of the breast-beating and protestations that tend to accompany right punishment? For repeating rapists and child-abusers who seek personal, physical, pleasure above all, and for that end willingly subject themselves to, and embrace, passion where reason has neither meaning nor authority, the truest punishment is pain -- appropriate of course -- but necessarily physical pain. But that is not right for our modern, moralising society, which is so largely indifferent to those who suffer as a direct result at times of its
officially approved, god-substituting and self-proclaiming, indulgence. And so, such and similar abuses of sexuality and criminality go on largely undeterred -- and perhaps even more voraciously sought -- because ‘the law’ can, at the best, only drive them out of public view, force them underground, so to speak.
Let us now, however, turn to Jesus Himself again.
He began to drive out those selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who were selling doves saying, “Take these (things) out of here, and stop making My Father’s house a marketplace.”
The Temple in Jerusalem was God’s House in so far as His name was there; but God Himself had His proper dwelling in heaven, as we hear in the book of Deuteronomy (26:15) and in the prophet Isaiah (63:15):
Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us.
Look down from heaven, and see from Your habitation, holy and glorious.
Consequently, in the OT Temple of Jerusalem, there was both a presence and an absence. The great prophets, however, were always alert to God’s irrepressible goodness, and so let us now return to our first reading in which we were told of a vision from God given to the prophet Ezekiel:
Then 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.
Now that water had remarkable healing properties:
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.
Those waters flowing from the Temple in the prophets’ vision were a foreshadowing of the grace of the Holy Spirit to be given by Jesus to His Church, for His People. Bearing that in mind we can appreciate even more why we should rejoice in this feast of the Lateran basilica, the first Christian Church of the West; for Mother Church is the source, for us, of God’s grace and in her we have been endowed with God’s Gift, the Spirit of Jesus, Who brings us refreshment after the bitter experience of our past sins and failings, and renewed life as we begin to live and grow in Jesus for the Father.
Finally we come to the supreme revelation of the reason for our rejoicing on this day, when we recall the words of St. Paul contained in the second reading:
You are God’s building. You are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Mother Church today, indeed each and every Catholic Church, is God’s house, His Name is there for it is consecrated to Him, and it is truly a house of prayer. Now, however, Jesus abides with us and for us Personally in Mother Church and in each and every parish church thanks to His Eucharistic Presence. That Presence is an irreplaceable comfort to all Catholics. However, we cannot take the Eucharistic Presence with us; the tabernacle remains in the church, and even though we may have received communion at Mass, nevertheless, that Eucharistic Presence of Jesus in us is but fleeting, being a Presence given to us as the supreme channel for the entry of the Spirit of Jesus into our lives, the Spirit Who comes with His healing and life-endowing powers to refresh and fructify the many arid ways of merely human hopes and aspirations, possibilities and powers.
If we live faithfully by Jesus’ Gift of the Spirit in and through Mother Church, He raises us up to, and opens up for us, a new vista of life in Jesus; and if we will allow the Spirit to rule in us for that life in the likeness of Jesus, Jesus and even the Father Himself will come to dwell with the Spirit, in us, as in His Temple, as St. Paul said speaking to his faithful converts:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
When that takes place, People of God, the distance of God is totally transformed into a presence closer to us than we are to ourselves, as the following words of Jesus I am about to quote will explain. Now these are indeed words spoken by Jesus with regard to Himself; but since the faithful disciple is one with Jesus, a living member of His Body, and since the faithful disciple is being made, by the Spirit of Jesus, into a child of God in the Son, therefore these words of Jesus about Himself and His Father apply also to each and every faithful disciple of Jesus according to the degree of their faithfulness to, and union with, Him.
Thus, in Jesus and by His Spirit, we can experience God’s presence as the Father’s presence to us; both as a total and comprehensive being-known:
No one knows the Son except the Father;
and as our own inchoate filial awareness and responsiveness in a sublimely tender and loving intimacy beyond human comprehension or comparison:
Nor does anyone know the Father except the only begotten Son Who is in the bosom of the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18).
Thus, though having been made fully and, at times, painfully aware of our own nothingness and unworthiness, we are also given a total confidence that this divine endowment, this most wonderful relationship of presence and power, of being known and loving in return, cannot be lost, cannot be taken from us by any power or under any circumstance save that of our own turning away from God:
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. (John 10:28-30)
Therefore People of God, let us today remember these words of St. Paul:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
Take them to your heart, let them gradually form and characterize you both as a person and as a Catholic; for our blessings are great and the promises we have received are beyond all human comprehension, as St. Paul reminded our earliest forebears in the faith:
It is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9)