This year the 32nd Ordinary Sunday is displaced by the Feast of the Dedication of the Papal Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, which we call St John Lateran. Rome’s Cathedral was solemnly consecrated on 9 November 324. The Lateran Basilica is “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput… the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World”.
The original basilica was constructed by the Emperor Constantine. The Bishop of Rome’s cathedra, or throne, is there, the symbol of his teaching authority. The nearby baptistery is the ancient place of Christian initiation for the Church of Rome.
We celebrate solemnly the day a church is “born”. Every person has a “name day” and a “birthday”. So too a church. Our churches are dedicated or consecrated in honor of saints or mysteries of the Faith. The celebration of the dedication recalls the sanctity of the place which, as a consecrated building, has been removed from the temporal order and given entirely to God.
Church buildings should be rich in sacred symbols. This includes a sanctuary with its altar, the sacred space within the sacred space mirroring the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayers for the solemn consecration of a church, especially in the older, traditional Roman Rite, connect the earthly church building to the heavenly Jerusalem of the life to come, described in Scriptures especially in the Book of Revelation.
The rite of consecration and the annual feast of its dedication reflect that the church building is a house of prayer and the place of sacrifice. It is a foreshadowing of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is the microcosm of the Church Universal, the nuptial chamber of the Spouse and the Bride, the way to Calvary and the Garden of the Tomb.
A church must reflect its awesome purpose. It is a place where a soul peers through the cleft in the rock at God’s back as He passes by (Exodus 33), where he searches for the beloved in the palace (Song of Songs), where he gazes through the dark mirror (1 Cor 13). This is where the soul simultaneously expands in worship and shrinks down in awe at mystery’s encounter.
When Pope Sylvester dedicated the Lateran Basilica he called it the “Domus Dei … House of God”. A church building reflects that we are to be like the “living stones” who build up a holy spiritual Church (1 Peter 2:5). Over the doors of many old churches you find the phrase “House of God and Gate of Heaven”. In Genesis 28, Jacob awakes from his vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder betwixt heaven and earth. Trembling, Jacob says: “How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.” “Terribilis est locus iste!” is the opening chant for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church.
The rite of consecration and texts of the dedication feast recall that, not just the building, but the Christian’s soul belongs to God and is to be holy. The consecration of the church building is much like a baptism. In the traditional Roman rite there is an exorcism with “Gregorian Water”, a mixture of ash, salt, water, wine used exclusively for special purifications of churches and altars. The altar is “clothed” as with baptismal robes. Its walls are anointed with chrism, as we were in baptism and confirmation. There is the lighting of candles and their solemn placement at the points where the walls were anointed. At the beginning of the traditional rite of baptism, the one to be baptized is interrogated, “What do you seek?” He responds, “Faith” (not “Baptism” as in the post-Conciliar ritual). Then, “What will Faith give you?” “Eternal life”, he says. A church must reflect in every way not only the splendor of God’s gift of Faith, enabling us to embrace what is mysterious, but also the goal of Faith: eternal life. A church should reflect the splendors of our Catholic Faith and give us a foretaste of heaven.
Let’s see the first of the two Collects:
Deus, qui de vivis et electis lapidibus aeternum habitaculum tuae praeparas maiestati, multiplica in Ecclesia tua spiritum gratiae, quem dedisti, ut fidelis tibi populus in caelestis aedificationem Ierusalem semper accrescat.
O God, who from living and chosen stones prepare an eternal dwelling for your majesty, increase in your Church the spirit of grace you have bestowed, so that by new growth your faithful people may build up the heavenly Jerusalem.
We are conscious of this world, but our prayer directs us to heaven, not to an earthly utopia.