“The basilica of Saint John Lateran was built under pope Melchiade (311-314), it’s the most ancient church in the world. Due to the fact that the pope is also the bishop of Rome, Saint John in Lateran – being seat of the bishop’s residence – is also Rome’s Cathedral.”
This Sunday our weekly celebrations in Ordinary Time are suspended to celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. This church is considered by the Roman Church the ‘mother church of Christendom’, dedicated in Rome on November 9th, 324 CE. Unlike many other early churches it has withstood invasions, vandals, storms and time. Its endurance through history sets it apart but other churches may claim even earlier ‘mother church status’. For example, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt claims to be standing on the site of the church founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in 60 CE. This represents the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, predating the founding of the Roman church. And in Jerusalem where it all began, sites of churches date back to the crucifixion and the empty grave,ie. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In Bethlehem there is a church,The Church of The Nativity, built over a cave where animals would have been stabled, thought to be the humble birth place of Jesus, though no site in the Holy Land is undisputed. I remember,to the surprise of my friends and my own surprise at an experience of involuntarily falling to my knees to pray in this church at the opening of this cave. I did not at all expect it to be a place of call and reaffirmation of my faith,yet it was. I would have expected that more at the River Jordan or Golgotha, or the tomb, if at all. But we do not really choose such experiences.
Many pilgrims love to seek out holy places feeling perhaps a thin wall there between us and the presence of God. I took a Zionist tour with a dear friend through Israel in the early 1980’s when many beautiful Jewish holy places were visited, including the West Wall of the Temple destroyed in 70 CE. Jews were carefully guided as they approached this holy place to pray and place petitions in the wall. The very wall was thought to have retained the presence and power of God. We later toured the Christian holy places on our own. I remember the cacophony of noise as priests of various Christian persuasions loudly clamored for us to visit their section of the majorchurches.They depended on the money charged and the tips made in the church even as the high priests in Jesus’ day depended on the fees and meat from the sacrifice of animals. I could viscerally understand Jesus’ revulsion at the commercial ventures in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself was a polyglot cry of prayer that sounded almost competitive as Muslims, Christians and Jews called upon God. I preferred sitting quietly in awe at the side of the vast ” Sea of Galilee’,climbing to the Mount of the Beatitudes, and standing in the blanched remains of the ancient temple in Capernaum/Capharnum where Jesus was known to live and preach. And here in Fort Myers, I prefer to pray standing at the edge of my little lake so full of life or visiting the nearby Gulf of Mexico.
Some people seek large and beautiful cathedrals like Notre Dame or Chartres or St. Patrick’s Cathedral to feel God’s presence. Some are happy to see the gold and silver that adorn the altars and drape around the priests in some churches feeling that God deserves the best we have to offer.But is this finery the best we have to offer? Others find God in the out door cathedral of the mountains or the sea at sunrise or sunset. Some are repelled by this show of wealth when so many are hungry. Some find God while serving in the Soup Kitchen or hospice. With Pope Francis we may see God in simplicity. When we took our youth group to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. they had mixed reactions. Our young man,Keeron, and one of our young women,Jolinda, could not translate it into church. The boy just turned off. He was also angry at the suggested donation for lighting a candle, rightly complaining that it should never cost money to pray. The girls looked carefully at the diversity in the statues and marveled at the beautiful statues and paintings, but Jolinda was overwhelmed. She said “Pastor Judy, I like our church better. It is like our home. This could never be anyone’s home.” Her older sister said, “it’s more like a museum” while her younger sister said she liked it because it was beautiful.
But the church is not a building and Jesus showed us that God’s presence could not be contained in a building. We can love and remember places where we first worshiped in truth or first met Christ. I still love to go back to Bethany Methodist Church in Brooklyn and St. Michaels’ RC church in Hartford where I met God and God’s people in a special way. I feel surrounded by saints present and gone before in both places and now in our own small church in Fort Myers. Even when the people are not there, the very walls and floors where we worship are holy. I loved visiting the churches in the Holy Land. Some love the churches of Rome and some love the holy wells and holy places of Ireland, Wales, Lourdes, Ethiopia, Egypt, India and else where. Wherever we meet God or recognize God within us and among us it is a holy place. We do not need to prove which is really the first or Mother church, or worse, the “real” church of Christ.
I love Paul’s wording in his letter to the Corinthians(1 Cor 3:9c,17) “”Brothers and sisters: You are God’s building”….””the temple of God, which you are,is holy”. For Paul each one who follows Christ and all of us together throughout time become the body of Christ-the church.
In the Gospel of the day, John 2:13-22 Jesus passionately cleanses the Temple and then relocates the temple in himself, saying if they kill him, he will rise again in three days-all acts of revolutionary courage and enough to get him killed. And in his living, his teaching and healing, his dying and his rising, the church was born.
Let us look at the readings of the day as they appear in our liturgy:
Ezekiel 47:1-2,8-9,12 -the water flowed from the Temple giving abundant life everywhere
Psalm 46 R. The waters of the River gladden the City of God,the holy dwelling of the Most High
I Cor.3:9c-11,16-17 You are God’s Building , the Spirit of God dwells in you-holy you
HOLY GROUND Alleluia… the Gospel John 2: 13-22
“He drove them all out of the Temple area with the sheep and the oxen….and doves…and he said take these out of here…” Jesus loved the Temple. We see him in the Temple astounding the elders and being about his Parent’s business at twelve. We see him in Nazareth reading the Temple scrolls from Isaiah saying ‘the Spirit of God is upon me, for I am anointed to preach good news to the poor… and this day this prophecy is fulfilled”. We often see him preaching in the Temples in Galilee and in Jerusalem. He knew well the rituals of his people and the Scripture we read from Ezekiel 47 that helps us picture the living waters that bring life flowing from the side of the temple. (Later interpreted as the water and blood from his side on the cross). Along the banks of the river growth flourished-“Their fruit shall serve for food and their leaves for medicine”. Nourishment and healing flow from the living water of the temple, flow from the presence of God. The writer of John writes that Jesus referred to himself as the temple in this Gospel text. Jesus the Christ became that temple, and we too become, through Jesus, the risen and living Christ, the living temple of the living God. We become the living and chosen stones of God’s building. God’s presence abides with us as the church. This is truly awesome.
Jesus even loved the Temple enough to try to set it right when it went astray. In driving the animals and doves out, he is liberating them and showing that God does not want animal sacrifice although the Temple has become dedicated to that,with the priests and others living physically and materially off these sacrifices. God wants love, justice and mercy according to the prophets ( Hosea 6:6,Amos, 5:21-14). God wants us to love God and to love our neighbors,even the most outcast among them, as ourselves, according to Jesus. God wants our lives in service to one another, not our dead animals as burnt offerings, not even the best of them. God’s house is not a marketplace or a slaughterhouse, it is a place where living waters, wonderful teachings about justice and love, flow (as in Ezekiel 47). Life and healing blooms where this water touches. Jesus is changing the rules and the rituals of the religion. This is revolutionary. They will surely kill him for it. But he tells them he will rise up in three days (John 2:19). They can torture and kill his body but they cannot kill the living God and stop the living water. Let us pray to have the courage of Jesus and set right the wrongs that are practiced within our religion especially when it is tinged with privilege,materialism and the exclusion of those whom God loves but some in the church prefer to exclude from the Table.
Let us honor our lives and the lives of all of our neighbors as Holy Ground. Every time we worship, those gathered in our little church in a small humble house in a poor community sing: “This is holy ground, we’re standing on holy ground, for our God is present and where God is is holy”. For the second chorus we place our hands over our hearts for each one of us is holy ground full of God’s presence.Then we reach out toward our neighbors declaring ourselves and our neighbors as holy ground. This ritual started when we worshiped with the hungry and homeless (many of whom are still with us) in the local park after providing an evening meal. Let us pray to see the face of God in all, especially those who are outcast, hungry and homeless and struggling to survive. Let us pray for inclusion and justice for all. Let us pray to be truly holy ground revealing the presence ofGod.AMEN.
This is our church inside and out of the building -
But, our people know- They Are The
Building- This Is Holy Ground
Rev.Dr. Judy Lee,RCWP
Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community, Fort Myers, Florida