Cathedral and Temple

The readings for Sunday, November 9, 2014, Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, Cycle A, are
Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17; and John 2:13-22.


When the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica falls on a Sunday, it replaces the Ordinary Sunday. A bit of history: St. John Lateran ranks first among the great basilicas of Rome. People may be unaware that St. Peter’s Basilica is not the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome. St. John Lateran has that distinction. The site of this basilica was at one time occupied by the palace of a Roman family, the Laterani. The palace and surrounding area eventually came into the possession of the Emperor Constantine, died 337, through his second wife Fausta. Constantine seems to have given the palace to the Church in the time of Pope Miltiades, 311-314.

The building was consecrated into a basilica by Pope Sylvester, 314-335. It was dedicated to the Savior, and was known as the Basilica of the Holy Savior. In the 10th century Pope Sergius III, 904-911, added John the Baptist as a patron of the basilica. Pope Lucius II, 1144-1145, added John the Evangelist. Thus the basilica is known today as St. John Lateran. For centuries the adjoining buildings were the residence of the Popes. In the 14th century the Vatican, since it was on a higher and drier location, became the residence of the Popes. Nevertheless, St. John Lateran remained the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome and is considered the Mother Church of the Catholic world.

Because this church functions as the primary temple of the Catholic world, the gospel for this feastday is the story of Jesus’ invasion/cleansing of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. All four gospels include a version of this episode in Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem. For this feast the liturgy uses the version in the Gospel of John. Jesus’ attack on the Temple brought to a climax an ongoing confrontation between him and the leadership of the Temple, a confrontation somewhat more detailed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. This attack was the immediate cause of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. That is why Mark, Matthew and Luke all place the cleansing of the Temple at the end of Jesus’ ministry, where it surely belongs historically, while John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry for his own theological or catechetical reasons.

A principle of John’s gospel is called replacement/perfection theology. Under this principle the major institutions of the Old Testament and Judaism are replaced by or perfected by Jesus. The two pillars of Judaism before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. by the Roman army were Torah and Temple. Torah is a Hebrew word meaning “the teaching.” It refers to the revelation God gave through Moses as contained in the first five books of the Bible. In the Prologue (introduction) to his gospel, John demonstrated how Jesus is the ultimate Teaching or Torah of God, perfecting that ancient Torah which was attributed to Moses as author. As John writes in 5:46-47, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe me?” Thus John establishes that Jesus is the perfection of the Torah.

The other pillar of Judaism was the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Jesus’ invasion of the Temple, his cleansing attack on business enterprises in the outer courts of the Temple, these are John’s ways of demonstrating Jesus’ ownership of the Temple. He claims the Temple as his own, and does so in the name of his Father, as he is depicted saying, “You shall not make the house of my Father a house of business.” Thus the Temple of the Lord God is claimed by the Lord Jesus. But that is only the first step. The old Temple was but a figure of the new and eternal Temple. From the material Temple, John now elevates his readers to consideration of the final and perfect Temple, when he depicts Jesus saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

One of the characteristics of John’s gospel is the use of a so called “a straight man,” that is, someone who asks a dumb question so that the questioner and others can be elevated to a higher understanding. Thus the Judean religious leadership of the Temple challenge Jesus, “Forty-six years the Temple has been in construction, and will you raise it up in three days?” The Temple building in Jesus’ time is known as the third Temple. Beginning about 18 B.C., by command of Herod the Great, the second Temple was totally remodeled and enlarged into one of the most beautiful buildings of the world.

Jesus does not answer his critics. John’s theology does, when he explains, “But he spoke of the Temple of his body.”

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