Yes, this month we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (November 9). In a real sense, the cathedral church of Rome is a mother who has been teaching us what it means to be church for more than 1,700 years. It is worth listening to the lessons this church has to offer us in the Pacific Northwest today.
The first lesson is in her sheer size. When Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, he made it possible for Christians to worship publicly for the first time. Temples in the ancient world were small, because the people did not participate in worship. Only the priest would enter the sanctuary to offer sacrifice. The people stood outside while the priest worshipped for them.
So you can imagine Constantine’s surprise when he asked Pope Sylvester, “How big of a temple do you want?” and the pope replied, “How big can you build it?” The lesson: Mass is never something we watch like spectators but always something in which we participate. No one can do our prayer for us. If we are truly participants, every reading of Scripture will speak to our heart and every Eucharist will be a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
The second lesson of St. John Lateran is in the red columns and beautifully carved pilasters of the baptistery. These were taken from imperial monuments in Rome. The builders could have used new materials, but they drew from other buildings to teach a truth of faith: In baptism, that which was secular becomes sacred; that which was profane is profoundly incorporated into the body of Christ.
Those pieces of marble and porphyry used to adorn the monuments of murderous pagan emperors. They were symbols of all the forces of sin and death that tried to destroy Christianity — but through the grace of baptism, they became a beautiful part of the church. That is the power of baptism: It changes people and makes them new in Christ. The baptistery of St. John Lateran reminds us that no sin is greater than God’s mercy.
The final lesson is in the gilded bronze pillars near the altar of repose for the Blessed Sacrament. In 30 B.C., when Augustus conquered the Egyptian navy of Cleopatra, he confiscated the ships and removed their prows — the bronze decorations on the bow. He melted the bronze and molded it into four pillars for the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. They were a symbol that a new era had begun — the Roman Empire had been formed.
Constantine gave those pillars to the basilica to make a similar statement: A new day has dawned, a new era has begun, a new chapter in world history is now opened. Christianity is no longer private; it is now a public witness that forms societies and transforms cultures. Those pillars remind us that we are to be courageously prophetic in our witness of faith, that the church has a necessary voice in world affairs. We need to remember that — today more than ever — lest we become silent and the bronze columns of St. John Lateran become nothing but interesting artifacts from the past.
Northwest Catholic - November 2020
- Published in Ask Father/Bishop