Friday, November 09, 2012

Glorious, Holy...and Purified

Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

(Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica-Year B; This homily was given on 9 November, 2012 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, Providence, R.I.  See John 2:13-22)

The Basilica of St. John Lateran adorns herself with the title of “Mother and First of all the Churches in Rome and of the World.”  A rather modest distinction, no?  Of course that title comes to the Lateran Basilica because it was the place of residence for the popes from the early Church right up until the beginning of the 14th century (only in 1305, when the papacy was temporarily displaced to Avignon did the Lateran cease to be the papal residence).  The pope, of course, being the Vicar of Christ on earth, is the visible head of the Church and is entrusted in a particular way with authority to preserve Her unity and guide Her through Her earthly pilgrimage,  to where She will be joined with Christ for all eternity.  Certainly we celebrate this morning that renowned and glorious union with Christ in which we are all, as His body, exalted.  We thank God for the Holy Father who gives his life in service of that end for us as Catholics.  What a glorious feast day!

So many of the popes down through the centuries, and especially the popes that we have witnessed personally—Pope Benedict XVI, Blessed John Paul the Great before him, others for some of us who have been on this earthly pilgrimage a little longer—have reminded us by their very lives that power, glory and the great dignity of our call are translated in this world into humility, service and the gift of self.  We seek an ever more intimate union with Christ who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  The Church is called to be like Christ, to be holy, even though we are all too aware of each one’s limitations and failings.  And so it is that the Church comes to understand herself, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, as at the same time holy and always in need of being purified” (Lumen Gentium, #8).

Therefore it is fitting that, on this glorious feast day in which we celebrate the dignity of our Divine filiation, we reflect in the Gospel on the purification of the Temple (John 2:13-22).  Traditionally the Fathers of the Church will come to understand this cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple as Jesus’ preparation for the one acceptable sacrifice, not bulls and goats and sheep but Himself.  The Lamb of God is the one sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world, and He will replace all animal sacrifices, Himself the fulfillment of God’s plan for our forgiveness and salvation.

But St. Paul reminds us, in our second reading this morning, that we are the temple of the living God, who dwells in us.  The temple, though holy, is in constant need of purification.  There are three aspects of this purification that are important for us to reflect on this morning.

Firstly, we recall that it is Christ who allowed Himself to be purified and scourged for us.  Christ, who is without sin and perfect in every way, nonetheless went through the pain and humiliation of being scourged at the pillar and endured the agony of the crucifixion well before His body the Church suffered.  He asks nothing of us that He Himself has not already endured.  When we experience purification or cleansing in this world it is not the punishment of God or His wrath vented against us.  It is the love that unites us more intimately with our Divine Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.  The cleansing and purification of this temple is good because it is from God.

Secondly, we acknowledge that we are all in need, as individual members of His body, of that purification.  We are all mindful of those times that we have taken the focus off Christ as the center of our lives and placed something, or someone, else in His place.  Through the idolatry of technology, or imprudent relationships or perhaps coming to realize that we have placed ourselves at the center of our lives, we stand in need of purification and cleansing so that this temple of the living God begins once again to be about Christ and the work of the Gospel and not about us. 

Finally, we are aware, perhaps now more than ever, of the need for us as a Church to be purified of all the ways we have failed to transform the world around us and have, instead, allowed the secular world to transform us.  How many members of the body of Christ, through neglect or apathy, have turned a blind eye to the needs of the unborn and the sin of abortion so prevalent in our culture today?   How many support abortion in the name of “choice”?  How many members of the Body of Christ in America have supported same-sex marriage and rejected God’s plan for the human family as a covenant of love between one man and one woman, bearing fruit in this world in the same way that Christ desires to unite Himself to His Bride the Church for that fruitfulness in spiritual life?  How many Catholics in our very region of the country have accepted the lie that physician-assisted suicide is a viable solution when it comes to our loved ones facing terminal illness?  There are consequences to these sins against human dignity and the gift of life.  These errors and moral failures are in need of cleansing and purification. 

Furthermore, the silence of priests—all of us, at one time or another—on these vital issues is also something which we must bear responsibility for. 

And yet how very many faithful Catholic men and women, laity, priests and religious, have sacrificed so much to be faithful and to witness to the dignity of human life, the sanctity of marriage, the dignity of the human person.  Our defense of those essential qualities and dimensions of life come at a cost and there is a tremendous struggle, to be constantly defending and fighting for what others consider to be an option at best or, at worst, a nuisance.

This struggle, this challenge, is what is known as purification.  The challenge that some must face—in this life or the next—of taking accountability for those times when opinions and decisions have not been consistent with the values and teachings of our Catholic faith is cleansing, purifying.  The acknowledgment of the need for forgiveness and God’s mercy is something that strikes at the heart of God’s work of purifying His temple. 

How are we called today, and especially in the days ahead, to embrace that purification?  How is God inviting us to be more completely united to Jesus Christ here in this world by being purified of all that is not from Him and worse, has taken us away from Him in any way?  Because a purified and cleansed Church alone will have the power necessary to accomplish what this world needs more than anything else: the transformation into what Blessed John Paul the Great called a “Civilization of Love.”  A purified Church will have the power to announce with the boldness of humility and charity the Gospel message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the only path to mercy and human fulfillment.