It is a rare privilege to celebrate the dedication of the basilica of Saint John Lateran on a Sunday, and so it is perhaps a good opportunity for us to reflect on two characteristics presented to us in the liturgical texts appointed for this feast. First, if we look at the title given to today, we see that we are here to commemorate the dedication of a building. We know that the word ‘church’ properly designates not simply an architectural edifice, but the company of believers who are incorporated into the life of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. In the Old Testament the word ekklesia is frequently used to describe a gathering of God’s chosen people above all, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, ‘for their assembly on Mount Sinai where Israel received the Law and was established by God as his holy people’ (CCC 751). We take that word and apply it in a similar sense when we speak about ‘ecclesiastical institutions’ or ‘ecclesial communities’, and so we have the idea of the Church as a convocation of people in the service of God.
We are privileged to be here this evening, not simply to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but to do so accompanied by the fine music of the English recusant composer William Byrd and in this striking and beautiful church. Byrd himself knew, through his own experience, the precious value of the Most Holy Eucharist. His three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, for three, four, and five voices, are stark works for individual voices designed to be sung in clandestine gatherings of the Catholic faithful during a dark period of English history. Members of his family were fined for their refusal to attend Protestant worship and many of his compositions draw parallels between the struggles of the Catholic remnant in Protestant England and the People of Israel in captivity and bondage, desperate for the safety of the Promised Land; a land where they might worship the Lord God unhindered. He lived, too, surrounded by the courageous witness of many for the faith. The sacrifice of thousands of men and women for the Catholic faith is as much a harrowing reminder of the potential cost of our baptismal promises, as it is an inspiration for us that, if we are faithful, the reward of abiding in the Lord’s eternal presence is real. As we honour those martyrs of the faith, together with countless other men and women whose lives have been lived in faithful obedience to Christ, we are reminded of the great gift of the Eucharistic sacrifice that sustained them, and we come to offer that supreme act of worship once more here and now as we plead the intercession of those who rejoice to enjoy the beatific vision.
Through the sacrament of holy baptism, the Christian receives new life in Jesus Christ. At the moment of our incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, the Church, the ‘old man’ is crucified with Christ ‘in order that our body of sin might be destroyed’, and the new man emerges (Rom. 6:6). Going down into the water of the font we see nothing, but rising from it we find ourselves in the new day and new light of the resurrection life. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem puts it, ‘That one moment was your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother’.
Reconciled to God through this configuration to the eternal life of Christ, the Christian is restored to the fullness of man’s nature: of what it means to be human. If Jesus Christ is perfectus Deus, perfectus homo, then through our incorporation into his life we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. What we forfeited in the Garden of Eden through sin, the first act of disobedience, is restored to us by means of the perfect obedience of the Son to the Father – the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
You can listen to the audio recording of my recent talk, ‘The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness’, given as part of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Theology on Tap summer series, by clicking below. The text of the talk will be available on the blog soon.
In his apostolic letter on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Saint John Paul II wrote, ‘the Liturgy is the privileged place for the encounter of Christians with God and the one whom he has sent, Jesus Christ’. In the sacred liturgy, then, the praying Church on earth encounters her Lord and God in a unique way as she is caught up in the eternal worship of heaven – the selfless love-giving relationship between the persons of the Most Blessed Trinity.
It is for this reason that we can describe the sacred liturgy, in the words of Father Faber of the Oratory, as ‘the most beautiful thing this side of heaven’. And it is to emphasize this reality that the sacred liturgy bids us join the singing of the Sanctus, together with the saints and angels in the Church’s hymn of praise, a Church present both in earth and in heaven. Thus we can say that the worship of the New Jerusalem is, in the authentic celebration of the sacred liturgy, presented to us who still labour below. In the sacred liturgy, we say, the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back for us to see into the fullness of the life to which we are called.