Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica - 9 November

Readings: Ezekiel 47:1-2,8-9,12; Ps 46; 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11,16-17; John 2:13-22

One of the most memorable moments from the papacy of Benedict XVI was his consecration of Gaudi's unfinished basilica in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia. Like many works of genius it remains unfinished, coming up against the limitations to which flesh is heir even while trying to express something of the infinite and the transcendent within those limitations.

One striking thing about this church is its marriage of tradition and novelty. What could be more un-modern than the building of a great 'medieval' Christian church? What could be more modern than the shocking variation on the Gothic which Gaudi's building presents. Perhaps that combination of tradition and novelty says something about the Church itself, the Church as a theological reality, already ancient (the Church from Abel) and always new (bearer of life and freedom). On one side the Church is deeply rooted in traditions of faith and witness, handing on what has been received. There is no institution more conserving. At the same time the Church is constantly called to account by the world, asked to respond to the questions posed by each passing age.

Benedict's visit to Barcelona was a reminder of the place of music, painting, architecture, and the other arts in the life and worship of the Church. These expressions of natural 'spirituality' may all be placed at the service of 'true worship, in spirit and in truth'.

Gaudi's vision for his strange and wonderful church was informed by the book of nature, the book of scripture, and the book of liturgy: so Benedict in his homily that day. This is a rich and mutually illuminating combination. It is what we find in the sacramental life of the Church, which uses the elements of this world, fruits of the earth and work of human hands. It gives those elements new meaning with the application to them of words from the scriptures and the Church's tradition. And the whole is put together to make the 'awe-inspiring rites' of initiation, reconciliation, healing, ordination and marriage. Far from being a museum, Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece is a living church. In this too it says something about the Church as a theological reality: it is alive with sinners and with saints.

Nature brings food and healing, water and fish, leaves and fruit. All of these things decorate the temples of the Christian religion because they all represent Christ and his work - the life he brings, the food he is, the medicine of immortality, the water of life and the heavenly nourishment.

Human hands make bread and wine and they also make buildings. Not surprisingly the Church is often spoken about as a building. The term 'church', which originally referred to an assembly of people summoned for worship, is transferred to the buildings in which those assemblies take place. But it belongs in the first place to the gathering of believers. Christ is the foundation-stone of this living Temple, and the apostles are its master-builders, making a strange and wonderful Temple which is the community of those who believe in Christ. And not just those who happen to be alive today but all who have lived before and belong to this communion, and all who will live after us and will, likewise, belong to the same communion. 'You are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you', as Paul says in today's second reading.

We can perhaps add a fourth book to the ones mentioned by Pope Benedict: the book of history. The great liturgical feasts of the Bible mark not only the seasons of the year according to the book of nature but also the foundational events of salvation history, those moments of liberation and salvation that happened 'once and for all', moments that established and strengthened the people's faith in the Lord, the God of Israel.

So Jesus goes up to Jerusalem because the Passover is near. It is to Jerusalem that he goes up, to the Temple. It is that time of year when the memory of that great event is celebrated liturgically. But he brings the other books with him. 'Zeal for your house will consume me', the evangelist comments. You have made my Father's house - the house of prayer - a house of trade. But destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up: here is the radical innovation, a revelation that now it his body that is the place of sacrifice, the place of prayer, the place of the presence of God and of encounter with God. Ezekiel describes the renewal of nature by the waters flowing from the right side of the Temple. John will speak about the renewal of all creation by the waters flowing from the side of Jesus. Nature and history combine, scripture records, and liturgy celebrates.

At the moment of its happening this remained, for the disciples, strange and wonderful, a bit like Gaudi's basilica. But with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead everything came together - creation, history, scripture, liturgy - and they remembered that he had spoken in this way about his body, the new Temple, and they came to believe the scripture, and the word Jesus had spoken.

1 comment:

Thomas G McCarthy said...

I certainly look forward to visiting Gaudi's basilica, Vivian. Seen the Lateran a few times!