Dedication of St John Lateran Sunday November 9th 2014

Dedication of St John Lateran Sunday November 9th 2014

Dedication of St John Lateran

 Sunday November 9th 2014

 The feast of St John Lateran this year is on a Sunday. This gives us a chance to think about this great place and great feast.

John Lateran is the Pope’s Cathedral Church. St Peter’s is not the Pope’s Cathedral church, it’s a great basilica and the pope lives nearby, but the Cathedral, the church from which he teaches, that is found in St John Lateran, which goes all the way back to the time of Constantine.

St John Lateran is a very ancient Roman Basilica and a really great place to visit. There are magnificent statues of the 12 Apostles in there; the 12 form as it were, the pillars of the church building. A beautiful symbolism, as the Apostles are the spiritual pillars of the church.

It’s also know as the “Mother and Head of all the Churches”. That’s why it’s important for the whole Catholic Church to celebrate the feast of it’s dedication.

It gives us an opportunity to reflect on Church buildings. My generation clearly heard the message that the word church refers not so much to buildings, as to the people. It’s absolutely true, the people are the Church.

Nevertheless for Catholics, church buildings matter. Why? Because we are a sacramental people. Indeed the primary reference of the church is the people. But the church building is not just a tent that the pilgrim people happen to occupy for a time. The church building is of great sacramental and symbolic importance. Thank God in recent years we have begun to recover this sense.

There are 4 fundamental images of church buildings.

The church is meant to be The Temple.

For ancient Israel, the temple was everything. The temple was the dwelling place of Yahweh. The first temple of Solomon was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. People went up to Jerusalem, that meant they went up to the temple. That they might commune there with the very living presence of God.

When you go through the Psalms, many of the Psalms are the songs that accompanied the processions to and worship in the Holy Temple. Once you see that the Psalms just open up to you.

So our church buildings are meant to be representations if you want, of the Temple. That’s why in Catholic churches we still have a Holy of Holies. The Ark of the Covenant, which contained the 10 commandments, was seen as the container of the living presence of God, well we still have that in our Catholic Churches in the Tabernacle. Where the Eucharist is kept, the living presence of God. We have altars in our churches, as there was an altar in the ancient Israelite temple, they are not just assembly rooms and gathering places. Why is there an altar? Because the sacrifice takes place in church buildings, the sacrifice of the mass.

We are not just gathering to hear the word. We also gather around an altar of sacrifice. Presided over by a priest. There are priests in our churches not just teachers and doctors.

We see how the building is meant to be a New Temple. That means the place of right praise. That means the place where the praise of the people is rightly ordered.

Our first reading from today, that beautiful vision from the prophet Ezekiel. When the temple is rightly ordered, that’s when water will flow forth from its side. So that from our church building can go forth the living water for the renewal of the world.

The second image is that church buildings are meant to symbolizeThe New Jerusalem.

Remember the Book of Revelation, we see the Heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. The City now fully invaded by the presence of God. It has the streets of gold and the gates of pearl. It is a place of beauty and resplendence, jeweled walls, the light in it comes from the Lamb of God.

Our church buildings are meant to symbolize the New Jerusalem. This is the eschatological dimension of the Church.

For a time church buildings were meant to look comfortable, like a living room, a place where you would feel comfortable gathering. I think a church building is meant to draw you into a higher world. It’s meant to be a sign even now of this heavenly Jerusalem.

If you go to the great Gothic churches like Chartres and Notre Dame, you see stain glass windows. The deepest theological meaning of those windows was from the book of Revelation. They were meant to look like the jewel walls of the heavenly Jerusalem. Sparkling, vivid light and colour is meant to signal to our minds and hearts a higher world.

Angels and saints that appear on our church and buildings are they just pious decorations?They are citizens in the heavenly Jerusalem. What we say during mass; “may our voices blend with theirs”, we are talking about the angels and the saints who sing the praise of God in the heavenly Jerusalem. We now join with them in our sacramental version of the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the church building.


Here is the third image, the church building is meant to signal Noah’s Ark. During this time of chaos, the time of the flood, what did God do? He sent a rescue operation in the form of this great ship. On which a microcosm of God’s good order was assembled. It was able to endure during this time of great crisis.

Does any of that sound familiar? It’s the ongoing story of humanity. Sin still pervades the world, the chaos is still around us, watch the news any night of the week. What did God send? He sent in the form of the church, Jesus Christ his definitive rescue operation, on which a microcosm of his good order is preserved. That is us gathered at the mass. Singing his praises, hearing his word, eating his body and blood.

Just as the doors and windows of Noah’s Ark were opened once the flood waters receded and life let out, so at the end of every mass, we open the doors of the church building and out floods life which had been preserved on the Ark which is the Church. It’s no accident that the main part of the church is called the “Nave” from the Latin “Navis” which means “ship”. So it’s no accident that the great gothic churches look like ships, that the flying buttresses look like oars, the idea is; stay aboard this ship and you will find your way through he difficult waters of this world.


Finally the church building is meant to symbolize the Mystical Body of Jesus. Jesus is not just a model we admire but he is a force field, a power, we are grafted on to him, we are members of his Mystical Body. What happens inside a church building when you are baptized? You are brought into that building as a little baby and you are grafted onto Jesus, you are washed, you are marked permanently.

You come back throughout your life and your are fed by the body and blood of Jesus, the way an animal is fed from his mother. You come to this mystical body to be fed by Jesus. You are nurtured now like a child in the womb. When you die, and your body is carried out, it’s through the womb of this body has been opened that you are born into a higher world.

All of these rich images are part of our great Tradition. Church buildings should not be dismissed or rendered secondary; they are of enormous sacramental and symbolic significance. Today’s feast day reminds us of this great truth.