This is an approximation of the homily I delivered on Sunday November 9, 2014 at St Luke the Evangelist Church at the 6:00 PM Mass. This is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome. The scripture readings can be found by clicking this link.
Aren’t there certain things in life that we just do, but we really don’t know why we do them? Take the handshake. Do you know how it came to be? In the ancient times, people traveled mostly by foot. They carried swords for protection, usually hanging under their cloaks on the left side. When strangers where passing on the road, they would extend their right hands to show their swords, and then clasp hands to show that they were friendly and were not going to stab each other. It evolved into what we know as the handshake.
What about the military hand salute? In the middle ages Knights in armor raised visors with the right hand when meeting an opponent. This practice gradually became a way of showing respect, evolved to tipping that hat, modified to touching the hat, and since then it has become the hand salute used today.
So why am I talking about the salute and the handshake? Today we celebrate the feast day of a building. The Cathedral of St John Lateran not St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is actually the Cathedral of the Pope. It was originally a palace and was dedicated as a Church this day in the year 313. Although there are only small pieces of the original building remain, it is the oldest Church in Christianity. Why do we have the dedication of this building as a feast day? Is it a tradition like saluting or shaking hands that no longer has its original meaning? To the contrary, the Church puts this feast on the calendar to remind us of the importance of church buildings as sacred space set apart for a special encounter with God and as people of faith we ought to treat them as such.
While God is in fact everywhere, today’s Gospel confirms that certain places are sacred, set apart and should be treated with special reverence. If that were not the case, Jesus would not have flown into a rage, flipped over the tables, and driven the money changers out of the temple with a whip. He did this because that by their actions, the moneychangers were defiling the most sacred place on earth at that time.
Prayer is simply lifting our hearts and minds to God. And that is also the purpose of the Church building. The music, art, and architecture are to help us lift our hearts and minds to heaven. In centuries past, the church was seen as an image of heaven. Its design and décor were based on the descriptions of heaven found in the Scriptures. Its high ceilings and arches drew your mind and heart up, up to God. Stained glass was intended to image the jeweled walls of heaven as described in the book of Revelation.
In the Catholic Church, a ceremony known as the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar dedicates the building as sacred space, set apart for God and His people. Among the things that are done during this rite:
The altar is anointed with Sacred Chrism, the same oil that is used in Baptism and Confirmation. The altar becomes a symbol of Christ, which means “the anointed one”.
The walls are anointed to signify perpetual dedication to Christian worship. Incense is burned on the altar to signify the sacrifice of Jesus. The incense also signifies the prayers of the people reaching the throne of God.
In the very early Church, Mass was celebrated in underground cemeteries and in homes. As the Church flourished, lavishly ornate buildings were constructed with the intention of …lifting our hearts and minds to God. The problem was that over the centuries people began to believe that God dwelt exclusively in these ornate churches. People went to church, participated, received communion and went home without knowing who was sitting next to them. Worshippers forgot that we are come to church to worship God as family.
Lets go back, for a moment, to the Dedication of a Church. Thee first things that is blessed, before the altar or the walls are blessed, are the People, because the Church is a living temple and each member is a spiritual altar. This what Paul is referring to in the 2nd reading when he says YOU are God’s building and Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
To remind us of this, and of the community aspect of worship, Vatican Council II introduced some liturgical changes such as exchanging the sign of peace. But we may have swung from the extreme of attendance at Church being for God and me alone to the other extreme where Mass is a communal thing and God is not the center. Many have lost the sense of the church as a sacred place, to the point that the conduct of some in our churches today borders on irreverence. In some Churches that I have been in, I can almost imagine Jesus making a whip and driving us out like he did with the moneychangers.
Practices that were meant to remind us that we are in God’s presence when we enter the church have been almost abandoned. These include such things as dressing appropriately, signing oneself with holy water, properly genuflecting, avoiding unnecessary chatter, and whispering when one has urgent cause to talk in church.
The next time you are in Church, look to your left and look to your right. I am sure you will see plenty of empty spaces. There are over 5000 Catholics in our parish. If only half of them came to Church every Sunday, the Church would be standing room only every week. But look at the empty spaces. The loss of the sense of the sacred might be one reason why people are no longer interested in attending Mass. If we come to church thinking that it is going to be entertaining like a concert or just another social gathering, we will find it boring. But when we realize that the church is a holy place, a place of encounter with God, the Mass become an uplifting rather than boring experience.
Because the Mass is the ultimate prayer, everything that we do and say in this Church should not only lift our own hearts and minds to God, but also help those in the community to do the same. I think you would all agree that there is some attire that is appropriate for the beach or the gym that may be distracting to your fellow worshippers and therefore is not appropriate for Mass. Likewise, attire meant for a formal ball may be equally distracting to others.
When I was young, there were no “Shhh” signs posted at the door, yet it was just generally known that there was no talking in the sanctuary. You were quiet out of respect for the Eucharist and to allow others in the Church to communicate with God without distractions. If there was something urgent to say, it was said in hushed tones and virtually no one could hear it. Now days, movie theatres and golf courses can sometimes be more quiet and reverent places than our churches.
So what is your homework?
I am going to leave you with two questions to ponder on this week. First, What can I do to help bring a sense of reverence back to this Church and to every Church that I attend? And second, What am I going to do about it?
Today’s celebration of the dedication of St John Lateran, is not just some ancient practice that has lost its meaning. It invites us to renew our faith in the church as a house of prayer, of awe and reverence, and to cultivate habits and practices that make it easy for God to encounter us and us to encounter God whenever we enter Church, especially as we prepare to receive Jesus sacramentally in the Hoy Eucharist.