Sunday, November 09, 2014
The Lateran Basilica and the River of Life
(Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica-Year A; This homily was given on 8 and 9 November 2014 at St. Elizabeth Church in Bristol, R.I.; See Ezekiel 47:1-12, 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 and John 2:13-22)
This weekend we celebrate—throughout the Church universal—the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. One of the four major basilicas of the City of Rome, the Basilica of St. John Lateran is actually the main cathedral of the pope. Usually when we see the pope on television he is in the Vatican or celebrating Mass in St. Peters Basilica (also one of the four major basilicas). But from as far back as the 4th century the Basilica of St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s, has been the pope’s cathedral.
Yet what we celebrate this weekend in the Church is not the wood, stone, marble and stained glass that constitutes that Roman architectural wonder, as much as the magnificent and awesome reality that it symbolizes: the temple of the living God that is the Body of Christ, the Church. As St. Paul emphatically reminds us this weekend:
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
—1 Corinthians 3:16
In fact, all of our readings for this weekend are focused upon the Church as the temple and the dwelling place of God. All of our readings lead us to reflect deeply upon our identity and mission as the Church Christ founded.
But what do we believe about the Church? If you asked 10 separate people what they understand about the Church, it is possible that you could get as many answers. Some might say the Church is, for them, a family of faith; others might answer that the Church is the place where we worship God. The Church might be acknowledged as the gathering of believers united in one faith and guided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Certainly we profess each and every week that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Yet there is one notion of the Church that Pope Francis has systematically eliminated from the equation. Over and over again he has insisted that the Church cannot be self-referential, bent on its own self-preservation. However we understand the Church and our own experience of parish life, we cannot remain focused on the mere maintenance of the structures and institutions closed in on themselves. The Church, Pope Francis insists, must strive to move outward to those on the periphery and on the margins. The Church is necessarily evangelical.
This is nothing new. Evangelical faith—faith which seeks to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the world in word and deed—is rooted in the New Testament and evidenced down through the centuries in the lives of the saints and in the missionary zeal of those who took Christ’s call seriously. The Church exists to evangelize, to transform the world and set the hearts of all on fire. Yet now more than ever we need to revive that missionary zeal and allow the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us to lead us out of our comfort zone and into a world desperately in need of healing and new life.
There is a powerful image of what God desires and intends for His Church in the First Reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. The prophet has a vision of the temple, and flowing from the threshold of the temple was a river that could not be contained within. The angel of God, who has brought him to the temple, says to him:
“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.”
—Ezekiel 47: 8-10
The angel continues to declare that fruit trees will grow on the banks of the river, providing food, and that their leaves will be a medicine for healing.
This vision of Ezekiel is remarkable and striking because it is completely different from the way we experience the natural world. When a river flows into the sea, at the very place where the mouth of the river empties into the ocean, the water is quite brackish. The vast expanse of the salt water overflows back into that river, and even though the water may be fresh and clear upstream, it is filled with sediment and salt at the place where it begins to empty out.
Not so in the vision of Ezekiel. The prophet envisions a river that is so remarkably fresh and powerfully pure that it is able to turn the entire ocean itself into fresh water! This is a beautiful and striking image of the power of God in the sacraments and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, which is able to transform all that is bitter and stagnant and to heal the brokenness and sickness that comes to us from sin.
The lives of so many people in the world, many who have not yet encountered the God of mercy, forgiveness and love, are filled with sorrow, disappointment and shame. The message of salvation and the encounter with Jesus Christ through His Body, the Church, has the power to bring refreshment, renewal and new life. How awesome is the power of God in and through His Church!
Yet if we are honest we can admit that, perhaps too often, this is not how the world experiences the Church. Is it not true that, at times, the bitterness and the brokenness of the world, along with the reality of sin, flow back from the sea and into the Church? Is it not the case that the family of God, and our own individual lives, can become tainted with the briny bitterness of sin?
Far from denying this reality, the Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that the Church is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified” (Lumen Gentium, #8). She is holy because she is one and united to Jesus Christ, Her Divine Bridegroom. The Church is the holy, spotless Bride of Christ. Yet, in Her individual members, she experiences the bitterness of sin and is thus, “always in need of being purified.” She needs to be cleansed, made pure and constantly renewed in every age. That can, and should, happen in many different ways. Jesus teaches us one particular and effective way in the Gospel this weekend.
St. John recalls how Jesus went into the temple and found those selling oxen, sheep and doves; He saw moneychangers making a business out of the worship of God. Making a whip out of cords, He drove them all out of the temple: the moneychangers, as well as the animals! The Fathers of the Church teach us that Christ is cleansing the temple of more than injustice and sin. He is clearing it out and putting an end to all animal sacrifice so that He might institute one single and eternal sacrifice: the sacrifice of Himself. This one sacrifice is the one that will ultimately cleanse and purify even the Church, from its beginning until the end of time.
The Church requires a purging and purification that comes through scourging, but not our scourging. The Church is made holy and perfect through the shedding of blood and total sacrifice, but not our blood and not our sacrifice. Jesus Christ will ultimately allow Himself to be scourged and afflicted that we may be healed (see Isaiah 53:5), and He will become the sacrifice that brings the forgiveness that each and every one of us longs for and desires. Here, then, is the source of the river that Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple and into the sea, which it makes fresh. Jesus Christ is the source of the healing and the power that purifies the Church and, in turn, transforms the world we live in.
When we seek out the Lord for the forgiveness of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that He instituted for that very purpose, we are given a new beginning and we hear those life-giving words of Christ: “I absolve you from your sins.” This new life comes to us from the cross and the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son.
We are renewed and made whole in the Holy Eucharist only because Christ, with great love, stretched out His arms on the altar of the cross and proclaimed:
This is my Body, broken for you.
This is my blood, shed in love for you.
Take, receive, and live in me; let me live in you.
A Church that is not purified, one that is as secular as the world around it, is useless.
But a purified Church that is immersed in the life of Christ flowing like a river from the cross, that is the Church healed and made ready to bring God’s medicine to the brokenness of the world we live in. That is the Church Christ desires, and the Church all of us long to be a part of.
Receiving Christ here in the Most Holy Eucharist, immersed in the love of Christ crucified and purified completely in Him, may we truly become holy, cleansed and ready to go wherever He pleases. May we be that river, flowing from the temple and out into the world around us, bringing healing, refreshment and hope to all who long to see the face of God.