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NOVEMBER 9, 2008: DEDICATION OF ST JOHN LATERAN

Readings: 

Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12
I Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17
John 2:13-22

I have it from "good sources" that there are several people who will be in purgatory until the Parousia. At the top of the list is the first person to have called a building a church.

Today is one of those occasions when the readings we employ in the liturgy tell us not to celebrate the feast the liturgy commemorates.

Our earliest Christian ancestors in the faith had no specific buildings in which they celebrated the Lord's Supper. They simply gathered in their homes for such meals. As a child I was falsely taught they did so because of persecution. Since they feared being arrested and eventually martyred, they avoided meeting in high profile places like churches.

We realize from Paul's letters that they met in homes long before any persecutions began. Besides, rarely were the actual Roman persecutions empire-wide. Most were local and brief.

Christians met in homes for theological, not political reasons. As I mentioned in a previous column, they were convinced Jesus' death and resurrection had once and for all destroyed the distinction between sacred and profane. Everything, every place, every time, and every person could now be sacred. Jesus had torn down the veil which separated the two opposing elements. One's home had become just as sacred as the holiest temple on earth.

It's clear from our I Corinthians pericope that Paul believes the sacredness once reserved for special buildings, like the Jerusalem temple, now resides in Jesus' followers. "You are God's building . . . . The temple of God, which you are, is holy." No one has ever said it better.

Though we know the earliest Jerusalem followers of Jesus frequented the temple for prayers, Luke reminds us in Acts that the "breaking of bread" took place in their homes.

Their temple attendance soon ceased for two reasons. First, Christian Jews were eventually prohibited from entering these sacred precincts because of their practice of admitting Gentiles into their number. Without some personal (and embarrassing) inspection, the authorities couldn't be certain all Christians were Jews. Second, after 70 CE there was no temple. The Romans had demolished it.

These factors seem to be behind our gospel passage. Utilizing his well-known "replacement theology" (Anything Jews can do, we Christians can do better!) John teaches that the life-giving benefits people, like Ezekiel, expected to receive from the temple, they can now receive from Jesus. "'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.' . . . He was speaking about the temple of his body."

Since John doesn't have to worry about a real, physical temple any more - the Romans had taken care of that - he leaves out a statement of Jesus which the other gospel writers thought was significant: "My house shall be a house of prayer (for all people), but you have turned it into a den of thieves!"

Because of Jesus' dramatic encounter with the merchants at the temple's entrance, it's easy to misinterpret his den of thieves comment. It has nothing to do with how business is being transacted in this sacred place. He's simply quoting his prophetic predecessor, Jeremiah (7:11), who wasn't dealing with buyers and sellers. I often remind my students that the den isn't normally the place where thieves do their thieving. It's where they go for security after they've thieved.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus points out that his fellow Jews have turned this sacred place into a sacred security blanket. It permitted them to go out and sin against their neighbors, then return to the temple, a "hide and seek base" on which they believed not even God could touch them.

Thankfully we never developed such a mentality about sacred places in Christianity.