Brothers and sisters, you are God’s building. … For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Cor 3:9, 17)
November 9th, just before commemoration of Pope Leo the Great, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral Church of Rome by Pope Sylvester the First in the year 324. Originally known as the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and now known as St. John Lateran, this ancient church is universally recognised as the Mother and Head of All Churches of the City and of the World (Omnium ecclesiarum Urbis et Orbis mater et caput). Accordingly, the whole Church celebrates its dedication. In continuity with the Feast of All Saints which began the month of November, today’s celebration affirms the universal call to holiness that we have all received by virtue of our Baptism. We are reminded of this defining truth by the Apostle Paul: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwell in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:17).
There are striking similarities between the Rite of Baptism and the Rite of Dedication of a Church. Just as we are cleansed of sin through the waters of Baptism so too, the church building is sprinkled with Holy Water. The walls of the church and the Altar of Sacrifice are likewise anointed with the same chrism that is used to anoint those receiving the other Sacraments. The candles on the church walls mark the places where the walls were anointed. An ancient antiphon sung on the anniversary of a church’s dedication expresses the holiness of every church dedicated and consecrated to the worship of God: Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum, irreprehensibile est: This place was made by God, a priceless sacrament; it is without reproach.
This church is a priceless sacrament. God dwells here in the Tabernacle. Our presence in this holy edifice is a reminder of our true nature and purpose: holiness, “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). Today’s feast reminds us that the means to holiness are principally found in this church building, in the sacramental and liturgical life that begins here with our Baptism. As we live our lives, this life of grace and holiness is here nurtured and deepened. In the sacred rites and ceremonies that we celebrate and which mark the growth of our life in Christ, we behold the glory of the Lord and from one degree of glory to another we are changed into His likeness (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). Here we learn to walk along the path of God’s commandments, “formed by divine teaching”; here our hearts expand with the sweetness of love (cf. Prologue, The Rule of St. Benedict) and in this house of prayer we learn to live in holiness and in peace.
A church is a house of prayer. Too many of our churches have become noisy, almost a distraction to prayer which, we know, is the fruit of silence. The sacred liturgy that is celebrated in the Church is principally impressive, not expressive. What this means is that when we come together in the sacred assembly (synaxis), we do so first and foremost to encounter the Mystery of God and to be transformed by this encounter. The holiness of this building, the sacredness of our rites, the beauty of the liturgy, the truth of our teaching; all these are meant to be for us a foretaste (praegustatio) of the glory of eternal life. This place was made by God, a priceless sacrament; it is without reproach. No matter how small, no matter how humble, every church consecrated to the worship of God should be ordered in such a way that our simple presence in it should be a sacramental experience; a spiritual experience of the truth, goodness and beauty of God Himself “who wills to perfect us as the temple of the Holy Spirit” (Preface of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, The Roman Missal). This all begins with our Baptism and it deepens in meaning and purpose by our deliberate and conscious response to the call to holiness.
In the year 496, at the Baptism of Clovis, King of the Franks, an event that marked the beginning of Catholic France, on the threshold of the baptistery, the splendor of the vestments, the brilliantly lit church, and the litanies and hymns caused the overawed king to ask St. Remigius, “Is this it, the kingdom of heaven you promised me?” “No,” the saint replied, “but it is the beginning of the road that leads there.” Most of us may not remember the day of our Baptism but some of you do; those of you who came to the Faith as adults. All of us however, renew our Baptismal vows every year at Easter and the glory and splendour of the Easter liturgy directs us towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. Here, in this holy place is where we are sanctified and where we receive the food for the journey (viaticum), the Eucharist which unites us to our Saviour in life and death and in life eternal. Sancta sanctis! God’s Holy Gifts for God’s Holy People! These words are proclaimed by the celebrant in most Eastern Rite liturgies during the elevation of the holy Gifts before the distribution of Communion. The holiness of God and by extension the holiness of His sons and daughters is at the heart of every liturgical and sacramental celebration. The sacraments have no other purpose if not our sanctification. This is why we prepare to receive them and we celebrate them with great reverence and devotion.
The celebration of this Feast of the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran, Mother and Head of All Churches of the City and of the World, is a reminder to Catholics everywhere that we all have one single goal: holiness. The secularised society in which we live desperately needs the witness of our holiness. There is no better service that we can render to humanity. If our worship is holy and reverent, so also will our lives be. The sacred liturgy of the Church provides us with a stability of purpose and meaning without which we risk losing not only our way but our very selves. In the pilgrimage of faith that is our life it is not difficult to lose one’s way; but it is not impossible to find it again or to remain steadfast on the path of discipleship. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the sacred liturgy: this is the source and the summit of our life. Here we learn again and again, and please God, always in a deeper and more meaningful manner, that our call to discipleship is a call to holiness, to the perfection of charity. “Brothers and sisters, you are God’s building. … For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:9, 17).