Friday, November 07, 2014

What is the Church? Readings for the Feast of the Lateran Basilica

This year we have a special treat in the month of November, in that the Feast of the Lateran Basilica, the Cathedral of the City of Rome and Mother Church of Christianity, falls on a Sunday.  Usually only week-day mass goers get exposed to this wonderful feast and its Lectionary readings.

The Feast of St. John Lateran is unusual in the Church’s calendar, because it is a feast for a building rather than a saint or an event in salvation history.  The Lateran Basilica—dedicated to Christ the Savior in honor of both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist—is the Cathedral of Rome, the mother church of the mother diocese of the world.  Most people think St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is the Cathedral of Rome, but it is not.  St. John’s church, located on the Lateran hill (thus the unofficial name St. John Lateran), holds the cathedra or throne of the bishop of Rome.  A new pope is not fully installed until he takes possession of St. John Lateran and sits in the cathedra of Rome.

The Readings for this great feast help us to move from gratitude for treasured physical buildings, like the Lateran Basilica, to reflection on the true nature of the Church.  Although we call places of worship “churches,” in actual fact the true sanctuary or place of worship is the Body of Christ, both in the sense of Christ’s personal body and in his mystical body, which consists of every Christian united to him by faith and the sacraments.

1.  Our First Reading is 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.”

This very famous vision of the River of Life flowing out of the new temple at the end of time occurs near the end of the Book of Ezekiel, in a long section (Ezek 40–48) in which Ezekiel beholds a new temple and new land of Israel that God will establish in a future era of peace.

At the time of Ezekiel’s writing, the Jerusalem Temple lay in ruins, having been destroyed by the Babylonians, who also exiled the populace of Jerusalem to Babylon and environs.  Ezekiel had preached to the people that this destruction and exile was the result of their sin and abominations against the LORD.

At the end of his book, however, Ezekiel writes to provide hope.   He sees, essentially, a New Jerusalem and a New Temple, and this Temple has the attributes of the Garden of Eden, which was the original sanctuary at the beginning of time.  Just as the river of life flowed out of the original Eden and from there watered the whole earth, so a river flows out of this New Temple sanctuary and brings life to the land of Israel, transforming the notoriously sterile Dead Sea region into a place of abundant life.

Ezekiel’s vision would be fulfilled in time, but in a way far different than he may have imagined.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9:

R. (5) The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High!
God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Therefore, we fear not, though the earth be shaken
and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea.
R. The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High!
There is a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God,
the holy dwelling of the Most High.
God is in its midst; it shall not be disturbed;
God will help it at the break of dawn.
R. The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High!
The LORD of hosts is with us;
our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Come! behold the deeds of the LORD,
the astounding things he has wrought on earth.
R. The waters of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High!

Walking through Hezekiah's Tunnel, Wading in the Gihon
Psalm 46 is a doxology of Zion, a song of praise of the Holy City Jerusalem, which was the special dwelling place of God and site of the Holy Temple.  The Psalm refrain refers to “the waters of the river that gladden the city of God.”  This refers to the Gihon, a gushing spring that poured out from a location far down the slope from the Temple Mount.  The Gihon was the only continuously-flowing source of water for the city of Jerusalem.  As such, the people of Jerusalem saw it as sacred, a gift from God and sign of God’s blessing to the city.  The spring was named “Gihon” after one of the rivers of Eden (Gen 2:10) because the ancient Israelites looked at Jerusalem as a New Eden, a successor holy mountain to God’s original holy mountain.  Although the Gihon was not excessively impressive, it was “pressed into service” as the sacred river that flowed out of the New Eden.  The spring functioned very significantly in the history of the city.  David captured Jerusalem originally by climbing with his men up the watershaft that provided access to the Gihon.  Much later, David’s descendant King Hezekiah cut a kilometer-long tunnel through solid bedrock in order to force the Gihon to flow inside the city walls of Jerusalem, enabling the city to enjoy continuous fresh water during a siege.  The tunnel is still there, and I have waded the entire distance through it twice.  It exits into the Pool of Siloam, near the lowest point in the city of Jerusalem, the place where the Man Born Blind was healed in John 9.

The Exit of Hezekiah's Tunnel, Near the Pool of Siloam
Psalm 46 praises God for the security that he grants to Jerusalem, part of which was the Gihon, that provided water in time of siege.  For us, this Psalm speaks of the Church.  The Church also is a fortress-city, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” as St. Paul says; it is the temple founded on the rock against which “the gates of Hades” or “powers of death” will not prevail (Matt 16:18).  The Church defends her children against spiritual attack, giving them sound doctrine and providing them the sacraments to strengthen them for warfare.  Our “Gihon,” our stream of fresh water to sustain life in time of siege, is the Holy Spirit that flows within the Church, conveyed to us in the waters of Baptism and the flow of Eucharistic blood. 

3. The Second Reading is 1 Cor 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.

The relevance of the Second Reading is obvious.  St. Paul uses temple language to describe the Church, something he does in a number of other places as well, notably Ephesians 2.  The language of the temple is particularly poignant when writing to the Corinthians, since Corinth was renown for its massive temple to Venus/Aphrodite, which was a major center for cultic prostitution.  By contrast the small early Christian community did not have massive buildings.  St. Paul stresses that the body of believers itself is the dwelling of God, not buildings made of stone.  The indwelling Holy Spirit—whose presence in the Old Covenant was limited to the Holy of Holies—now inhabits each believer, making them holy.  The protection God once promised to Zion/Jerusalem now applies to the believer.  He who destroys one of Christ’s members will fall under God’s wrath.  This would apply to persecution: those who physically persecute the Christian community—we think of ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram—these groups already fall under the judgment of God.  But the believer can also be destroyed by false teaching, and so those who teach should be very cautious: Jesus says it would be better for a millstone to be fastened around the neck and to be thrown into the sea, than to mislead one of his “little ones” into sin.  This makes us ponder the fate of those entrusted with the religious education of youth, who teach skewed moral theology that derails the spiritual life of Catholic young people, or views of Scripture that undermine student’s faith in God’s revelation.  These, too, are ways in which the temple is destroyed.  May God defend his temple!

4.  The Gospel is 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.

John gives the account of Jesus cleansing the Temple at the beginning of his ministry.  Many think this is the same account as the Temple cleansing of Passion Week, and John has artificially moved it forward in his chronology, but with Blomberg and others I believe Jesus cleansed the Temple on multiple occasions, probably kicking out the money changers every time he came to Jerusalem.

In his concern for the Temple, Jesus exercises his role as Son of David, because the Son of David was entrusted with the responsibility for building and maintaining the “House of God,” the Temple (see 2 Sam 7:13).  So Solomon built the first Temple, and subsequent Davidic Kings repaired and maintained it.

Jesus’ identification of his body as the New Temple is earth-shaking, because the Temple was so central to the faith of Israel.  The Temple was the climax of salvation history and the embodiment of all God’s covenants.  The people of Israel viewed the Temple as the successor of the Garden of Eden and the Ark of Noah, built on the site where Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac and therefore received a divine oath of blessing (Gen 22:1-18).  The Temple originally contained the sacred liturgical furnishings and vessels made by Moses, and so was the successor of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  The Temple itself was thoroughly intertwined with God’s covenant with David, Israel’s king (2 Sam 7:1-17).  So the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David were all tied up with the Temple.  It was the place of communion with God and the place of sacrifice.  Nothing was higher than the Temple but God Himself.

Jesus identifies his body as the New Temple.  Thus Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple applies to Jesus’ body.  Ezekiel saw a river flowing forth from the New Temple: this is the Holy Spirit that flows forth from the body of Jesus, signified at the cross by the flow of blood and water from the side of Christ (John 19:34).  Ancient Jews would recognize the symbolism of blood and water, because the Temple Mount flowed with blood and water at festival time, when the excessive amounts of sacrificial blood were washed down the Temple plumbing system and expelled down the side of the Mount to mingle with the Brook Kidron that ran between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. 

The blood and water from the side of Christ is a sign of the River of Life flowing from the New Temple.  This is Eucharistic blood and Baptismal water, since it is the sacraments that carry the Spirit to us.  The sacraments are like a river flowing through human history through with the Spirit comes to us.  All the sacraments have their origin in the sacrificial death of Christ. 

The sacraments give us life and usher us into the New Eden, pictured in Ezekiel’s vision.  Eden contained the Tree of Life, and we have restored access to it.  The Tree of Life bore fruit from which one could eat and not die—we now have a food to eat which grants immortality, and that is the Eucharistic flesh and blood of Christ.  Eden also had a river that brought life to the rest of the world—this is the Baptismal font, that regenerates the spiritually dead and makes them into children of God.

These Readings remind us that the Church is not a building.  Nonetheless, as physical beings, we need space in which to worship, and our church buildings have tremendous symbolic, psychological, and practical importance.  Physically speaking, our church buildings are the locations and spaces of the celebration of the sacraments.  They “house” the River of Life (the baptismal font) and the fruit of the Tree of Life (the Eucharist).  Therefore it is appropriate to have affection and even veneration for the holy structures that have served us so well through the centuries as sanctuaries where we come into contact with the living God.  The Lateran Basilica stands as a symbol and reminder to us of the true nature of the Church as God’s Temple.


Anonymous said...

This is off topic to this post but not for this site: any thoughts on the to-be-published "Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture" document to be released? I see it on Amazon and it looks very exciting.

Frank Gibbons said...

Outstanding commentary, Dr. Bergsma! I will share your insights this Sunday with our RCIA group as we review the readings of the liturgy.

Frank Gibbons
Seekonk, MA

Susan Moore said...

So, are you saying the Church of today is the New Jerusalem completed but not perfected? (I'm asking because I still see crying and suffering and pain and death). I like that story, about the man born blind, and studied it alot when I was doing street ministry and trying to get my head around the weird reactions I was getting to my own heaing. It seems to me anything but a worship response points to spiritual pathology ( That's said remembering I was in psychological shock for two weeks post my own healing).
Thanks for this, great history in this.

John Bergsma said...

I would call the upcoming "Inspiration and Truth of Scripture" document interesting but not exciting.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks, Frank!