November 9, 2104 –– Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9,12 / First Corinthians 3:9c–11, 16–17 / John 2:13–22
Building A Church
My journey into the fullness of Catholic Faith began in the free-church––even a “low church”––tradition. By that I mean that there was no prescribed liturgy, there were no sacraments, there was “freedom” in worship to be spontaneous or merely to do whatever the pastor had planned for that Sunday. Of course, for the latter years the “pastor” was me so I had a lot of control over what characterized our worship.
My spiritual formation was nurtured in a pursuit of personal holiness, and the highest criteria for a church gathering was whether there was a “spirit of anointing” on the worship, but especially on the preaching. The physical setting held little priority. We were not opposed to a nice church building, but I remember one of the early preachers who had a deep influence on me saying (in an “anointed” sermon), “better to meet in a barn and have the glory of God than meet in a cathedral without knowing the glory.” It’s hard to argue against that logic, and I’ve always sought the anointing of God in my ministry––but that is not to say that the physical and material in worship are unimportant.
One of the ways that Catholic Faith is distinctive is the importance it gives to the material. A cute way to say it is that “Matter matters.” So it is a common observation, for those who bother to notice, that one of the discernible characteristics of Catholicism is beautiful churches. This is because “Matter matters.”
We believe that in the Incarnation God gave the ultimate affirmation to his crowning verdict at Creation: very good. The Son of God took upon himself a true human existence. It boggles the mind. There is no wonder that the Church wrestled with the nature of Jesus for the first couple of centuries. Once it was settled –fully God and fully Man––the Church has embraced a sanctified view of the material world. What the Old Testament modeled with Tabernacle and Temple and vessels and vestments is really true: “things” can be holy!
Some people want to argue that holiness is only “spiritual”––that it’s an attitude or disposition or some other abstract expression. Think about it: the only way to live a holy life is in the body God has given you. Once any object is made, there is an immediate question: how will this item be used––in ways that honor God or dishonor him? Paul told Timothy: In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use (2Tim 2:20). Paul’s point is simply, “What kind of vessel characterizes godliness?” Notice the care that is used with a chalice, that which holds the Precious Blood. To apply the household imagery, we do not mop our floors using a silver punch bowl, nor do we serve our dinner vegetables in a bed pan.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Up until the early 300s Christian existence was tenuous. Varying degrees of persecution were common and Christians could not be open with their worship. When Emperor Constantine officially validated Christian Faith in the Roman Empire there were almost immediate outward changes. One was places of worship; suddenly it was okay––safe––to have an open place for worship. Church buildings began to be built. A renovated palace of the Lateran family was consecrated in 324 and it became the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome. It is “the mother of all the world’s churches” and is a visible symbol of the universal Church. As we gather for worship today, we are tangibly connected to a Church that is indeed catholic.
Do buildings matter? Can a collection of bricks and stones be holy? Seriously consider what Jesus did: He made a whip out of cords and drove [those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers] all out of the temple area… His disciples remembered the words of Scripture, Zeal for your house will consume me (not zeal for the Lord, but zeal for his house!). Think about the care throughout the Old Testament for the place where God’s people would worship and how they were to approach God.
God’s “type” for the Church is the Jerusalem Temple, but the Temple gives way to the more complete Body of Christ. Christ’s Body is now the dwelling of God’s “glory” among us. By faith we see it in our Tabernacles, but it does not stop there. Today’s Epistle reading says the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and makes us God’s building…the temple of God.
The focus is surely not only a material building, and yet the building should never be insignificant. Because God created the heavens and the earth, and because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, there is in Christianity a union of the spiritual and the material. Our own salvation is not achieved by laying down our physical bodies. Salvation is not "the soul being set free.” Rather, our salvation will only be complete when we are raised with resurrection bodies even as our Lord has led the way with his own resurrection body (see 1 Corinthians 15).
Even now God is working his glory into us (see 2 Cor 3:18). Our highest calling as Christians is to become like Jesus Christ in every way––in love, in holiness, and in the resurrection of our physical bodies. One effect of this is being able to see God’s glory in the things we do. A place of worship and how we worship is meant to show the glory of God. We are the Church of God––the Body of Christ. A body is something with material substance. Matter matters.
One day in the Middle Ages, during the construction of one of the great cathedrals, a nobleman was walking among the workers asking about their labors. He asked a stone mason what he was doing, and the mason tried to explain the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The man asked the glass worker what he was doing and was shown the detail of a leaded glass picture. Then the carpenter told about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building. Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning trash. Asked what she was doing she replied, "I'm building a cathedral for the glory of God!”
In your personal life… in this parish…. in our community… throughout the world…. let’s build a “cathedral”––the true temple of our Lord’s Body––for the glory of God. This is our faith.