On 9 November, we celebrated the feast of the Dedication of the Church of St John Lateran, known as the ‘mother church’ of the Latin Church. Its full name is Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran.
For many churches, it is especially ‘mother’ in that it is the church from which they derive their name or their design. All churches and places named Christchurch, for instance, take their name from here, and the design of many churches has been based on the layout of St John Lateran. There is therefore much that can be said about this church and its history. However, the readings for the Mass are even more interesting. They give us a wonderful vision of the Church as a whole.
Given we are dealing with Sacred Scripture that witnesses to the Word of God, we find an infinite depth, so perhaps we could focus on just one aspect of this vision—namely, the understanding of the Church as the template and source of life of creation, and the related responsibility of humanity both to safeguard this reality and to extend it to the rest of creation. Not everyone might be familiar with this view of creation, so before we turn to the readings, let us consider this perspective.
One way to understand the creation stories in Genesis is to see them as the beginning of an ongoing process of creation. Paradise, or the Garden of Eden, is the pattern of creation, and humanity is to be the gardener. God creates paradise so that humanity will know what the job looks like. Humanity therefore has two jobs: first, to protect the blueprint that is paradise and, second, to continue the work of creation in cooperation with God’s vision—namely, paradise.
John Bergsma, in his wonderful book Jesus and the Old Testament Roots of the Priesthood, notes that one of the basic descriptions of Adam’s vocation is to till and keep the garden (Genesis 2:15). He explains that this phrase is a cultic one: it is used to describe the role of priests both in safeguarding the temple (and, in particular, the various sanctuaries) and in doing the work of the temple—namely, the sacrifices that praise God and purify creation. Adam’s job, then, is to protect paradise from corruption and then use it as the pattern for the ongoing work of creation.
Our first reading speaks to this approach. It comes from Ezekiel’s breathtaking vision of life pouring forth from the temple. The section we read on the feast has the river of life flowing out from the temple, bringing both life and healing. It also has trees growing on either side, trees that, following Psalm 1, represent persons who meditate on the Word of God and so produce the right fruit—fruit that the cross further reveals to us, in the end, is Christ.
Our psalm refers to God not only as providing sustenance, as in our first reading, but also as refuge and strength. Here we have God guarding us—that is, God as the original priest—and the people of God as the garden.
Our gospel comes from St John. It is the scene of Jesus purifying the temple. Here, we see Jesus fulfilling the task that Adam failed to accomplish. Bergsma points out that Adam should have fought the serpent, should have sacrificed himself to protect paradise. Jesus, here and on the cross, succeeds in cleaning the temple and fighting the ancient enemy.
However, what is most profound is the link made in this scene to this vision of the priestly role of Adam. In the purification of the temple, Jesus is asked to explain his actions, and he talks about the destruction of himself followed by the resurrection. Jesus explains that the real sanctuary is his humanity, in which God is incarnate, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. But how does Jesus protect this sanctuary? He protects it by giving it away. Love’s defence is to become defenceless. On the cross, we understand that sin tries to take what love has already given. We see here that divine love by definition cannot be conquered: it is always first and unchanging in its total gift—a truly wondrous climax to the original vision of paradise and the priestly vocation.
Love’s defence is to become defenceless. On the cross, we understand that sin tries to take what love has already given. We see here that divine love by definition cannot be conquered.
VMCH11 December 2023
Melbourne Catholic08 December 2023