St. John Lateran — Why Do We Have a Feast Day for a Building?
On Nov. 9, we focus our attention on the Basilica of St. John Lateran
For a tourist in Rome, there is wonder around every corner. Priceless antiquities are everywhere — the Colosseum rises beside a busy road, obelisks jut skyward in shopping malls, and ancient relics sit amid the Vespas in crowded parking garages. Pop into a church along your walk, and you’re likely to see the remains of St. Agnes or a painting by Caravaggio. Even the local McDonald’s is constructed of precious marble.
The largest and most famous of Rome’s great basilicas is St. Peter’s, which is constructed over the bones of the apostle to whom Jesus gave the Keys of the Kingdom. But St. Peter’s is not the oldest and is not the primary basilica in Rome; that honor is accorded to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s own cathedral, the dedication of which is celebrated in the liturgical calendar on Nov. 9. Dating back to the fourth century, St. John Lateran carries the title of “ecumenical mother church,” the mother church of the whole inhabited world.
It’s rare that a liturgical feast turns our eyes to a building, rather than to a holy person. But that’s missing the point: We are challenged to look within the four marbled walls to see what’s really important: the “Chair of Peter.”
In Exodus 18:13, Moses sat upon his chair, and the Israelites understood that from that honored throne, he ruled in judgment of his people. In the Scriptures, the authority of the chair was passed on to Joshua. Jesus recognized the authority of the chair, and so conferred upon Peter both his own authority, and the authority of Moses.
In St. John Lateran, the locus of the Catholic Faith, the Church proclaims itself to be truly one (that is, united in faith), holy, catholic (or universal), and apostolic (continuing unceasing from the time of the apostles).
The second Scripture reading in the liturgy for the feast is drawn from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It’s about a building — but then again, it’s not. As we celebrate the great feast of the great basilica, we are reminded that like the great basilica, we are temples of God. We are holy, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul cautions that God will destroy anyone — hear this, anyone — who destroys his temple.
John’s Gospel presents that eye-popping story about Jesus defending the Temple, angrily pushing over the tables of the moneychangers. Then, challenged by the Jews gathered there, Jesus hints at his death and resurrection, which are to come:
Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for 46 years, and you will raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.