Some might wonder why we celebrate the dedication of a basilica that most of us will never visit. Is it simply because it is the “pope’s church”? Or, as the “mother church” of all churches, should this basilica and this commemoration remind us that we are all children of the same church body? In a way, today is Mother Church Day.
Many people maintain that old churches possess a transcendental quality. Their vaulted ceilings rise to heaven. Their artworks recount stories of religious history and the women and men who made it. The aroma of incense ascending to God lingers in their rafters, where faint echoes of mystic chant and polyphony may still be heard. No wonder such places were cherished; one met God there. Such churches are not merely remnants of times past. Their very structure proclaims elements of the faith we continue to profess. It would be a shame if they were lost to us.
More modern churches express other aspects of our faith. Many focus on the communal dimension of our worship. While the altar remains the focal point of attention, the sanctuary is often located within the body of the church rather than against the front wall. Thus our perspective shifts from understanding “church” exclusively as the sacred place of worship to experiencing “church” also as the gathered assembly of worshipers.
In Ezekiel’s vision, the temple is depicted as the source of lifegiving water that flows in all directions, providing fresh water for living creatures and enabling trees and plants to produce fruits in abundance. How reassuring this image must have been for exiled Israelites. It promised that their recently destroyed temple would once again be their source of spiritual life.
And what of us? If the temple (church) is a metaphor for today’s believing community, what might this image mean for us? Too often when we think of the church as a source of life, we limit our understanding to its doctrines or its hierarchy. But we are the church! You and I. That is what Paul emphatically declares today: “Brothers and sisters: you are the temple of God.” Reading Ezekiel through Paul’s understanding of church, we might say that the lifegiving power of God flows through us to the rest of the world. We are the branches of the river that bring God’s nourishment and healing to others; or at least we can be if we realize our magnificent calling and are willing to give of ourselves.
Paul insists that “the Spirit of God dwells in you!” We have heard this so often that it may cease to mean much to us. “The Spirit of God dwells in you.” This is the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11), the same Spirit that has come to renew the face of the earth (Ps 104:30). What power of transformation dwells within us!
There is a shadow side to today’s pictures of the temple. Ezekiel shows us what this temple (church) was meant to be: a source of life. But the reading from John warns us of what it might become: a den of thieves. Again, it is easy to limit the message of Jesus’ condemnation to those today who have tarnished the church’s glorious reputation. But we are the church! The warning is meant for all of us.
Deceptions by many church leaders have recently been brought to light. Add to these offenses our mismanagement of church funds, disputes over the rights of layworkers and the marginalization of women, to name but a few indignities. And some of this seems to be justified by current church law. We should remember that buying and selling animals for sacrifice, and changing “profane” money so that only “sacred” money would be used in temple transactions were temple laws intended to facilitate proper worship. But over time their observance allowed abuses to creep in. Might the same be said about certain church laws today?
Our local church communities have other difficulties to face as well. Parishes with rich ethnic histories are challenged by the influx of ethnic groups who speak other languages and cherish other religious devotions. Too often differences spawn divisions. People without children sometimes resent having to provide for the religious education of parishioners they do not even know. The way parish funds are distributed can result in more division. The very people who need help may be deprived of it because of the depleted church funds. We all suffer because some have made the church a “den of thieves.”
Today we celebrate a feast that reminds us of our unity as church. In the face of our sins and limitations, we declare with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and our strength.” The Spirit of God dwells within us, and with that power we can indeed renew the face of the earth.