Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In 326 AD, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine gave land in Rome for the first Roman Christian Church and the residence of the Pope. There was something of a backhander in this gift as the Emperor had just executed his oldest son and heir Crispus, and his own wife, for plotting a coup. The site was that of the barracks of the Empress’s guard, which had been destroyed; I think we should assume their implication in this plot. Later centuries saw the place given an unfortunate Baroque make-over, but it retained the bronze doors which originally adorned the senate house in the forum. Every year the reigning pope goes to celebrate Mass in his titular church, uniting the city and the papacy in this great Catholic celebration of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. I suspect that the choice of readings set for today reflect both of these events; the original gift with its dubious circumstances, and the present visit of Francis to his church.
Our reading from Ezekiel (Ez 47:1-2.8-9.12) reflects a similar triumph of the faith over difficult and unpromising circumstances. Ezekiel was among the Jews exiled to Babylon in the 6th century BC, and 25 years into that exile, when things must have appeared intractable and their exile unending, Ezekiel had a vision from God. This vision was of a new temple, built far away from Babylonia. The details of its construction were precise and complex and in all this God revealed his purposes to the defeated and dejected nation. God promised the exiles a new land of their/his own and the ultimate in riches and prosperity: an end to seasons of productivity since the waters flowing from the temple would ensure the year round availability of goods whilst the medicinal leaves of the trees assured the people of abundant health. All would return to security and well being; the vision brought hope and a new confidence to the people, the promise of restoration of those bastions of the faith: land and temple.
Our gospel (John 2:13-22) takes an incident from the life of Jesus normally placed after his entry into Jerusalem for his Passion; what we call ‘the cleansing of the temple’. But John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after the first of his ‘signs’ or miracles, the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. Now Cana is in Galilee, miles away from Jerusalem and its temple and shows us a picture of Jesus who was prepared to break down the barriers of convention and the respectable; someone whose self-understanding led him to challenge the establishment with its fine structures and who was prepared to go out and perform a sign of his identity as God the Son in the insignificant setting of a rustic, rural wedding, about as hum-drum as you can imagine. Back in Jerusalem he reacted angrily to the profanation of the Court of the Gentiles by the temple authorities who had turned it into a market place full of animals to be sold for sacrifice, and polluting it with their excrement. Far from being the court in which the prayers of the pagans were included in the vast worship of the temple, it had become a scandal and obscenity, and Jesus was having none of it. Already the shadow of the passion hangs heavily over this small incident, wrapped up as it is in this row over who controlled the temple and all that it meant. We must realise that Jesus did not reject the building of sacred spaces nor the manner of worship in them, but he did object very strongly to their abuse, especially as we know there were porticos outside the temple for the selling of the sacrificial animals – but then High Priests would not have controlled this valuable source of revenue. The question of how we use our sacred spaces was clearly as relevant then, as it is now, and perhaps this chimes in with Constantine’s reclaiming of the site of brutal murders by his bequest of it to the Church, a mark of penitence and of his hope for the future in God. It also stands as a sign of the need for the Church’s independence from political power and influence, an issue it has found remarkably difficult to achieve.
When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 3:9-11.16-17) he was writing to a very early Christian community; one of about 30 people in a large city overflowing with magnificent pagan temples. There would not be any church buildings for some 200 years and clearly the convert people had an inferiority complex until Paul wrote “You are God’s temple…” the place where God’s Spirit dwells. Suddenly, with Paul as the renowned architect of this magnificent structure, every Christian became a holy temple for God, God living in each of them as in a shrine. Each and every Christian has to come to the realisation of precisely this, their new status and significance.
When Pope Francis goes to the Lateran Basilica he is not going for himself, nor is his triumph a purely Roman celebration, but it symbolises the triumph of God in each one of us. What we all have to do is live up to this great spiritual gift and call, and when we do so we truly honour Constantine’s foundation, and all that it has meant down through the centuries.