Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – John 2: 13-22
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the oldest and highest ranking of the four major basilicas in Rome. The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, the official ecclesiastical seat of the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, not St. Peter’s Basilica as so many mistakenly believe.
Built in the time of Constantine and was consecrated by Pope Sylvester in 324 originally to Christ the Redeemer but after destruction by an earthquake in 896 A.D., the church was rebuilt by Pope Sergius III, who dedicated it to St. John the Baptist. In ancient Rome this was the church where everyone was baptized.
It was during the reign of the Emperor Constantine that the laws restricting the practice of the Church’s faith were removed from Roman law and the Church went from being an illegal cult, whose profession of faith was considered an act of treason, to being the favoured religion of the Roman emperor.
The present basilica stands on the site of an ancient palace on the Caelian Hill (one of the famous seven hills) of Rome which formerly belonged to the family of the Laterani. This palace was part of the dowry of Fausta, the wife of the Emperor Constantine; and, Constantine gave it to the Church when he converted a portion of the Laterani palace to serve as the papal residence.
Today the liturgy celebrates the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, called “mother and head of all the churches of the city and the world.” Initially the observance of this feast was confined to the city of Rome; then, beginning in 1565, it was extended to all the Churches of the Roman rite as a sign of love for and union with the See of Peter.
Pope Benedict XVI in his Angelus address on November 9, 2008 said that this feast celebrates a mystery that is always relevant: God’s desire to build a spiritual temple in the world, a community that worships him in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23-24). But this observance also reminds us of the importance of the material buildings in which the community gathers to celebrate the praises of God. Every community therefore has the duty to take special care of its own sacred buildings, which are a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we call upon the intercession of Mary Most Holy, that she help us to become, like her, the “house of God,” living temple of his love.
The Gospel of today is taken from John 2. This episode of cleansing of the temple is placed right at the beginning of John’s Gospel immediately after the wedding feast of Cana. This is quite different from the synoptic Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) who place the incident at the end of Jesus’ ministry and as one of the inevitable consequences of Jesus’ death.
John also adds many more details to the incident. He will write about “sheep and oxen” along with the doves. He has Jesus make a whip out of chord and then turns to address the dove sellers separately as he overturns theirs tables too. In John’s Gospel, it will be the raising of Lazarus that sets in motion the last nail of hatred in the intention of the Jews to put Jesus to death. So why does this evangelist narrate this incident so differently from the other three?
Commercialization of religion is dangerous business, but it is not what this story is all about. John wants to make a point. We are told that the occasion for Jesus presence in the temple is the Passover. It is but natural that the activities of commerce will go hand in hand with the activity of religion. The Jews of the diaspora and the Jews in the area were not allowed to bring in any graven image into the temple and the coinage at that time had the head of Caesar on it. Thus the official currency had to be exchanged for the Jewish shekel and a fee was involved. This explained the presence of the money changers.
Much has also been said about the presence of the sellers of sheep, oxen or doves that were used for the sacrifice. These birds and animals had to be without blemish and it is held that many of the priests were in connivance with the sellers to sanction only the purchase of sacrificial animals from within the temple, as fit for sacrifice.
Did all this lead to the righteous anger of Jesus? Not really. In the gospel of John, Jesus is not acting against corruption, or at least he is not only acting against corruption and we know this because of Jesus’ command to the dove sellers which differs strikingly from the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48). Instead of a concern for temple malpractices (“den of robbers”), Jesus orders that His ‘Father’s house’ not be made a marketplace.
The answer is in the first few words of Jesus when he calls the temple “His father’s house.” Jesus is redefining worship not merely as a place (the temple of Jerusalem) but in Him. In chapter four He will get into a dialogue with the Samaritan woman (4:21) where he will reiterate the point and say to her, “believe me; the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain (Samaria) nor in Jerusalem. Again, in John 9:35-38 when he heals the blind man who now can “see,” the response of the blind man is to “worship Jesus”.
In John’s Gospel, the very physical body of Jesus is the new ‘holy place.’ And Jesus is the ‘New Jerusalem’. Jesus’ body is the temple which would be torn down by the Jews but raised by the Father in three days. This is the point that John wants to make. So, Is there a take away from all of this? Most certainly yes!
We ask ourselves, is our spiritual resolve to worship Jesus or get caught up in some ‘temple ceremony’? Is it the Lord we seek or the incidentals of cultic practice? Make no mistake; I am not diminishing the role of cult for it gives expression to our inner disposition of faith. The question is this; while cult is an integral part of worship, does it sometimes become for us greater than the reason behind the cult, Jesus himself?
Fr Warner D’Souza