The dwelling place of the Most High
Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth preaches on the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome.
No one can really doubt that the establishment of a cathedral church in Rome, then the heart of the empire that had put Jesus to death, is worth celebrating. But just how important is it? It is, after all, only a building.
But we Christians can never say ‘only a building’. Today’s readings demonstrate just how important religious edifices are in our theological inheritance. For the prophet Ezekiel, writing from exile in Babylon, the promise of a restoration for the people of Israel culminated in his vision of a new temple, where the glory of the Lord would dwell once more, a temple that would be like a fountain of living waters welling up to quench the world’s thirst for holiness.
And Ezekiel’s vision was indeed fulfilled, in large part, by the time of Christ. The new Jerusalem temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, a source of pride and joy for the Jewish people. In such a glorious building, it was very easy to believe that one was at the very centre of the world, the place where heaven had come down to earth.
But in today’s Gospel, Jesus shows very qualified approval of this state of affairs. Without doubt, the establishment of the temple had been part of God’s plan for humanity, but from the very first, when David planned to build a temple to house the ark of the covenant, it was an obviously risky undertaking. The temple meant as the dwelling place of God’s glory could instead become the pride and glory of those who built it.
And Christ tells us that even the temple, the greatest achievement of the people of God, even the sacrificial system established by God himself as a gift for his people, are only stages on the way to something much greater, to ‘worship in Spirit and in truth’. This is why Jesus railed against the sellers of pigeons and cattle and the money-changers: not just because they were corrupt, but because they made possible a form of worship that Jesus himself made redundant by his presence.
For it is no longer the temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in AD70, that represents God’s presence among his people, that provides the place for mercy and forgiveness. Christ himself is God’s presence among us, for he is Immanuel – God with us.
This doesn’t make buildings unimportant to us, it just changes our notion of sacred space: for the Jewish people, the world was centred on the temple, for us it is centred on Christ. The risen Christ comes to us in many ways and in many places: we hear the Word preached to us when the Gospel is proclaimed; we encounter Christ in his mystical body, which is us, the Church, when we meet together to worship him. These things are done, for the most part, in buildings properly suited to the worship of the God who is the source of all beauty.
Far more important, though, is the fact that our churches, unlike the temple, are not mere reflections of God’s heavenly glory. In the holy of holies, the heart of the temple, was an empty space, for the Jewish people knew that God could not truly be contained in any building. But in the tabernacles of our churches is the risen Christ himself, and so every Catholic church in the world is the dwelling place of the Most High, the throne of God’s glory.
The Lateran Basilica, the cathedral church of Rome, is the guarantee that our own church is part of the one Church of God. This beautiful church is no more the be-all and end-all of religion than was the temple in Jerusalem; but it reminds us that it is as members of the one people of God, the new Israel, that we have the privilege of encountering Christ in his body in the Eucharist.
And it is only as members of Christ’s mystical body, the Church, that we ourselves are, each one of us, the dwelling place of God, the place where heaven meets earth bringing with it the mercy and the glory of the Most High.