Most of the time when you come to this church, you go and occupy the same place. Some of us – like the organist or myself – do that for obvious reasons. The rest of us? When I was a teenager, I tended to take up a place behind the pillars in order to remain somehow invisible to the officiating priests. As all my peers did the same, those spots were packed absolutely full, so quite often I was standing up throughout the Mass despite seats being available in the more exposed parts of the church. Obviously, being crammed in with a group of boys, hidden out of sight of the priests, hardly helped me to pay any attention to what was being said or to what was going on. It has to be admitted that for most of my teenage years I was present in the church on a regular basis, but mainly in body, not in mind. Am I ashamed of that? I suppose I should be…
Everything changed when I became involved in a local youth group which was meeting in a neighbouring parish. There I learned to pray in my own words and to read the Bible; there I gradually moved from inherited but disengaged Catholicism to a living and personal relationship with Jesus. My faith ceased to be a matter of conditioning and habit and became a living thing. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t deem the former to be unimportant or worthless; it had been the foundation laid by my family, priests and catechists. The change in my attitude was another logical step on my journey in faith.
Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. It’s been the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, for centuries; and it still is, despite the popular belief that that honour is held by the architecturally more spectacular St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The splendour of the latter somehow eclipsed the Lateran Basilica, overtaking its role both in practical terms and also as an iconographic symbol of the Catholic Church. In our tradition the church building is not just a place to congregate and to worship in relative comfort, safe from the elements. We consider it to be a sacred place providing sacred space, consecrated to God and designated for a single purpose. Its upkeep and maintenance, sometimes at great financial cost and personal sacrifice, goes way beyond the usual level of care given to a building’s fabric.
In today’s gospel Jesus calls the Temple in Jerusalem his Father’s house, and demands the cleansing of the place of all the dirty dealing going on there. On the surface the problem appears to be all about animals fouling the area and dodgy financial practices contaminating the place; but that actually isn’t the point. The problem is the complete disregard of the Temple’s main and only purpose by those who profit from the ongoing business. They fight back against Jesus, demanding that he should demonstrate a valid basis to his demand. His answer gobsmacks them: ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ St John adds his explanation that Jesus meant the temple of his body; the temple built out of the living stones: us.
Many visitors coming to this church have been impressed by it in many different ways; by its size, by its decor, by its history, and sometimes by all of these aspects. But our visitors can be similarly impressed by other wonders of architecture around the world, religious and non-religious alike. This beautiful church means little or nothing without a community filling it; a community built on Jesus, its foundation stone, and bound together in one faith. When many years ago my faith changed from the inherited one to the living one, it didn’t happen because of the grandeur of my home parish church. It did happen in a community of people trying to live out their beliefs, people who were not judgmental but understanding; forgiving, not condemning; supporting and sharing. This is what Jesus meant when he established the Church: we’re invited to fill this place with something much greater than just our bodies: we’re invited to fill it with the glory of God clearly shown in us.