Today is the Feast of the Dedication of the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran – St. John Lateran for short. This feast is celebrated by Roman Catholics the world over. I think this is a feast that we American Catholics really need today, which is why it seems common for us to go out of our way to not get it. For example, at today’s services, the mandatory comments were made about us being the church, not some building. Living stones, and all that. Which is of course correct, and totally shallow in this context. Looking to the Liturgy and the readings for today we find the answer to the question: Given that we are the living stones in Christ’s Church, why is the dedication of a physical building an important feast in the Church?
The Incarnation changed everything. Or, perhaps more accurately, the Incarnation revealed to us dense humans what the created Universe is really like – The Incarnation is the apex and fullness of Creation, the ultimate expression of the ensoulment of all things, that God is bodied forth in His Creation for us and in us. This mystery of the workings of body and soul, of God and Man, is Sacramental.
Church building are sacraments – physical signs by which God gives grace. This grace-giving is true in two senses: First, the capital ‘S’ Sacraments are celebrated in the church building, so that the building becomes the occasion and physical focus for their graces. Second, as holy ground set apart and the expression of the finest art and material we can offer, the church building itself uniquely raises our hearts and minds to God, helping us to open up to His graceful touch.
Historically, this feast brings to mind the end of the persecution of the Church under the Romans in 313, when Constantine both issued the edict of Milan and donated the palace and lands of the Laterani family (seized by the empire under Nero) to the Pope. So, the conversion of the palace’s basilica into a now-legal church was a huge milestone for Christianity – they could publicly and legally celebrate Mass in Rome.
What this meant to those Christians is captured in the readings for this Feast: That God’s life flows from His Temple, that “the most High has sanctified his own dwelling” and that Jesus himself calls the temple “my Father’s house”. They and we are invited to see this beautiful building, the mother church of Rome and all Roman Catholic churches everywhere, as a sign that gives grace, as a very particular and special sacrament.
Aside: somewhere, in fact multiple somewheres, people will no doubt sing ‘Sing a New Church’ and ‘What Is This Place?‘ today for this feast. The Baby Jesus will weep.