My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.
— The Gospel of St. Matthew, 21:13
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
— The First Letter to the Corinthians 3:16-17
Quick, which is the oldest church in the world? Those who went to mass last Saturday may know the answer: the Lateran Basilica in Rome, built in the years before its dedication in 324. It is also called the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and the Saints John the Baptist and [John] the Evangelist in Lateran, translating its Latin name.
The land and the original edifice of the church was bequethed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, who ruled from 306 to 337, after he adopted Christianity as his and the Empire’s religion in 311. Various accounts had it that Constantine defeated a rival for imperial power, using the cross as his emblem. Whatever the reason for his conversion, it set the nascent faith on its way to becoming a world religion.
With persecution of believers and the destruction of churches ended, the Lateran Basilica became the first among all other Christian places of worship erected or converted with no more threat of demolition. Hence the title “Mother of All Churches.”
Eventually, it became the cathedral of the Supreme Pontiff as Bishop of Rome, a status it holds to this day. In the hierarchy of Catholic places of worship, it stands above all, including the monumental Saint Peter’s Basilica. Hence, only the 140-by-140-meter Lateran edifice is given the name Archbasilica, and its dedication is marked as a feast.
If all this sounds like interesting trivia for Bible night or banter with a bishop, far from it. And last Saturday, in a weekly traditional Latin mass at the lower chapel of Christ the King Church in Greenmeadows, Quezon City, Jesuit Fr. Tim Ofrasio’s homily, excerpted below, explained the importance of the feast of Christianity’s oldest church:
“Why do we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, and what is its significance for us here and now? . . . We celebrate it simply because it is “the mother of all Christian churches in the world.” It is linked to the teaching authority of the Pope as successor of Saint Peter [the first Bishop of Rome].
“The second question is not easy. I believe the answer lies in the readings assigned for today, either from the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 47:1-2,8-9,12) or from the First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:9c-11,16-17), and from the gospel we proclaimed from Saint John (Jn 2:13-22). In these readings the theme of the Temple stands out prominently. From this we glean that the Church is our point of reflection today.
“Allow me to share two points with you. First, the Church as a building constructed by people; and second, the Church as people of God, namely all of us believers who are the living stones making up the Church and Temple of the Holy Spirit.
“This place (and any other church or chapel) where we gather together regularly to offer the sacrifice of the Lord in Holy Mass is the image of the oldest temple which the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is. That is why we adorn it with only the best and most precious materials we can produce; it is the House of God.
“It is here where we encounter and share intimate spiritual moments with our Lord, where we share in the Body of Christ offered for our salvation. And so it is fitting that we give to the building that is the church the best that we have to offer. It is a sign and a manifestation of the deepest love and respect that we have for God.”
More from the homily later, after a brief comment. If Christian readers are finding all this discourse and detail about an ancient church few would aver visit, that may well be the problem for which last Saturday’s feast is part of the solution.
Many avowed believers see little meaning or value in centuries-old events and observances, except in the particular relevance to the here and now. But in fact, there is immense significance in the original tales, revelations and interpretations, which can be glossed over, if not totally lost or distorted by efforts to “modernize” the faith.
Take the Nativity of our Lord to be celebrated next month. His birth in Bethlehem fulfilled an age-old prophesy about the Messiah, but many faithful give little importance to the imperial edict at the time for all subjects to return to their birthplaces for census. Ditto Constantine’s bequest of the Laterani family land and building to the early Church.
Yet these seemingly mundane facts of imperial action underscore an oft-forgotten truism about how God acts in the world. Many times He harnesses earthly power for heavenly plans, even if the personages or institutions taking action are oppressive or evil.
Thus, a den of thieves, so to speak, is made a house of worship. Human machinations advance Godly visions. The divine is in the details.
Going back to Fr. Tim’s homily, he says further:
“But we also know that no matter how beautiful our places of worship are, the more important Church is not the place where we gather but we who gather here. The physical beauty of a church building is not nearly as important as those who gather in it to worship God. The exquisite adornments of a church building do not matter as much as the followers of Christ who live a life that is just, is committed to the truth, and follows the will of God.
“The benchmark of the true Church founded by Jesus Christ, is a community of believers who daily strive to live the gospel in their individual lives, manifesting Christian charity towards all. Multiplication of Masses, praying the rosary, novenas and other devotions, and erecting a beautiful church are not sure signs of the living faith of a Christian community. The life that is lived in the love of Christ is the only benchmark of the true and living Church of Jesus Christ.”
True worship then demands not just erecting a place of devotion, but also building the house of God in ourselves, by making every moment of our individual lives a prayer of adoration and love for the Lord through caring for the least of His brethren. Thus, we can truly fulfill the last line of Fr. Tim’s homily:
“Praise be Jesus Christ.”