Tag Archives: Jewish temple

By a Winding Road

The great 3rd century scholar Origin, whom I mentioned in my last post, was well acquainted with the holy land, since he was a native of Alexandria in Egypt and taught for a time in Caesarea Maritima, about 60 miles from Jerusalem. He’s one of the first Christian sources to speak of the cave at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and he must have been aware of other places associated with Jesus as well.

I remember  a pilgrimage I made  to Mount Sinai years ago, with Origin’s commentary “On Exodus” in hand, traveling by bus from the Red Sea through the mountains on what seemed like an interminable, narrow winding road. “We go to God by a winding road,” Origin said in his commentary, and I knew he had traveled this road.

His commentary explored the spiritual meaning of the scriptural events, but he was there all right. He didn’t forget what was there.

As a pilgrim in Jerusalem he must have stood before the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem. According to early sources, Jews came regularly to the Mount of Olives across from the Kidron Valley to look upon the ruined temple and mourn its passing. Origen must have seen them there. The present custom of gathering for prayer and remembrance at the “wailing wall” or western wall today began with them.

Then as now, some thought of rebuilding the temple, because they couldn’t envision their faith without it. Others realized that the Presence they sought there could be found elsewhere in other towns and places. Their synagogues and homes became more important as places of faith and worship.

Origen thought like the Jews who looked beyond the ruins. “Troubles and persecutions” led to rebuilding, but somewhere else and in another way. At the same time, he looked upon the ruins and acknowledged their glory, as signs of the One “who is, who was, and is to come.”

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran this Sunday, November 9th. Seems strange to celebrate the dedication of a church, doesn’t it?  Yet, the readings remind us that churches, like the Jewish temple before them, figure in God’s plan. They’re signs that God is with us.

But why should we celebrate the dedication of a church in Rome that most of us have never seen, or perhaps even heard of?

Because this church is special, it’s called “the mother of all churches.” Let me tell you why.

Saint John Lateran, originally called the Basilica of the Savior, was the first prominent Christian church built in the Roman empire after centuries of intermittent persecution. The Emperor Constantine built it in Rome in the early 4th century after he conquered the city and gave the Christian Church its freedom.

The reason he built this church, which held 10,000 people, was to make clear that Christians had the right to worship publicly, to meet publicly, and to express their faith publicly in the society around them. They weren’t second-class citizens or enemies of the state or people to be looked down on.

That was a major step in our Church’s history. We have a right to worship and to be recognized for what we believe and to express what we believe. Before this, Christians met in private homes or small meeting halls to keep out of the public eye.

Constantine gave this church to the bishop of Rome, and so it was the church of the popes from the 4th to the 14th century, when they moved to the Vatican across the city. It was the center of western Christianity for most of our history. Papal elections, ecumenical councils, imperial coronations took place here. Emissaries from the nations and ordinary Christian pilgrims came here to visit the pope, the bishop of Rome. So the Lateran is like an archive of our church’s past.

Next week, on Friday, a number of us from Saint Mary’s will be going to visit this historic church. I’ll put some entries from our visit on my blog from there.

For me this church is special because it seems to represent so well the human side of the church to which I belong.  Like the temple in Jerusalem it has had its ups and downs. The Lateran church suffered from earthquakes, fires, natural disasters of every kind. It’s been battered by invading armies and robbers. In some sketches of it that I could show you, especially from the early middle ages, it looks like an abandoned barn. Indeed, one reason the popes abandoned it in the 14th century was because the area around it had become too dangerous to live in.

It’s true, too, that not all the leaders of the church who lived there were saints either. It’s had its share of thieves and robbers.

That’s always going to be true for our church. This parish of ours is like it. Who knows what’s going to happen to this building through the years, whether from natural disasters or social catastrophes, or just the passage of time.

Like the Lateran church, we are a church of saints and sinners. Sometime, each of us goes from one or to the other.  We have saints and sinners here.

Yet, as we will see next week when we visit–that old church is still there. Like it, our church too is gladdened by God’s waters of grace ever nourishing it.  We are God’s temple, and the Sprit of God is given to us, ever nourishing us.

That ancient church is a sign that the Lord is with us and will remain with us till the end of time. The mysteries celebrated there, we celebrate here. So today we celebrate  its beginning–our mother– and hope to be its faithful child.