The Irony and the Ecstasy

Readings

First Reading Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9, 12

Second Reading 1 Corinthians 3:9c–11, 16–17

Gospel             John 2:13–22[1]

This may be the last time I get to speak to you in this way, at least for a while. This is sadness for me because you have been one of the most gracious audiences to whom I have ever spoken. I have found this experience a blessing. I ask your forgiveness therefore for giving a longer then usual message this time and hope you indulge me just a little.

In many ways Christianity is an ironic faith. The cross is the ultimate irony that through the death of one man God gives life to all. There is an irony too in the theme of today’s readings and in the purpose of those readings which is to bring our attention to a beautiful and lavishly ornate building namely the Lateran Basilica of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist in Rome. American theologian, Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in reflecting on our reading from Corinthians, says of Christianity, and of the cross in particular, that it is ironic because; “it works through its apparent opposite; life appears as death, light as darkness, strength as weakness, and something as nothing. Christians intend the world ironically, possessing it “as if they did not”. I feel that this irony of “working through the apparent opposite of something” and to “posses as if you do not”, are important things to consider when we think about the significance of ourselves as Church and when we consider the significance of our churches, the Lateran Basilica included.

I don’t like to travel so have never been to Rome, and in this respect am a disgrace to my children whose wanderlust knows no bounds. Having said that, Rome is one place I would like one day to go, together with Assisi and Oslo in Norway where they have actual Viking ships in a museum. Thanks to Google, Wikipedia and my beloved books I was able to discover some interesting things about the Lateran Basilica and why we would dedicate a feast day to it. It is commissioned to Jesus as all Basilicas in Rome are, but also to the Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist from whose Gospel we read tonight. The Basilica is considered firstly to be the oldest existing church in the world. Secondly, being in Rome but outside the Vatican precincts, it is the actual Cathedral Church of the city of Rome and is seen traditionally as the mother Church of all in the world. Its age is debatable, but the building today exists on the site of a Roman Imperial guard cavalry barracks from the second century. The Emperor Constantine demolished the building after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge as the Guards fought against him in the civil war. A substantial part of the stables is still present under the nave of the existing Basilica. The Emperor Constantine later gave the site and the adjacent Lateran Palace to the Church. Pope Sylvester dedicated it in 324 as a “house of God”. It was dedicated again when the Baptistery was added in the 10th century, to John the Baptist and again in the 12th century after refurbishment to St John the Evangelist. Both Johns are considered co-patrons of the Basilica. The Basilica and the nearby ancient Lateran palace were the residence of the Popes until their return from France after the Avignon exile in 1377. Like the temple in Jerusalem, the Basilica suffered the ravages of war throughout its history. The Visigoths sacked the basilica in 410 and the Vandals sacked it again in 455. Both of these invading hoards, I might add, were distant ancestors of the Vikings! The Basilica has had various additions and refurbishments over the years, the last of which was the current façade, added in the 1700s. It boasts some of the most beautiful and extravagant artwork in the world, including larger than life sculptures of all 12 apostles from the 18th century and a beautiful mosaic in the apse dating back to the 4th century. There is also one of the most elaborate examples of Norman art, a baldacchino or canopy, over the high altar dating from the Middle Ages. The Normans, for those who are interested, were descended from Vikings.

The Lateran Basilica stands as a wonderful testament to the architectural and artistic achievements of many parts of human history that were and are offered in honour and worship to God. The irony here is that it is also a testament to worldly wealth, power, politics and war. Housing many political councils it was at the centre of the French Popes’ controversial abandonment of Rome. Illustrious people of power wanting to garnish prestige and worldly influence as much as divine grace gave much of the art such as the statues of the apostles.

This is an irony that the church has had to deal with throughout its history. How do we show our love for God and our respect for God in our worship and in our churches without putting love for the beauty and lavishness of those buildings ahead of our love of God? I don’t know the answer to the question for I love beautiful music and art in liturgy also, and it is part of what I love about the Catholic faith. The grandeur of much of our churches, particularly in Rome, makes Catholicism an easy target for Protestant and atheist critiques. The criticism comes from people who don’t understand the complexity of the issue and the very important role that the symbolism and sacramentality of our buildings and statues play for us. This balance of loving God, sacramentality and humility is a difficult one and it is in some ways an irony. I think it is a balance to be found in the numerous examples given us by our wonderful Pope. A man who is answerable to no one but who stops his security entourage to embrace an old friend in the crowd and who, although he dines with Presidents, Kings and Queens, stops to have lunch in the Vatican cafeteria instead. When I first came to St Joseph’s Fr Lino told me a story about Pope Francis. Upon his election Pope Francis refused to live in the Papal palace but stayed in the nearby by guesthouse where he is still living today, according to Google. On waking up the morning after his election he was astonished to find 2 Swiss Guards stationed outside his room, his reaction was not one of self importance but of abject humility as he offered to make each of them a chicken sandwich!

These issues of understanding how God wants us to behave toward power and wealth are not new. Our Gospel message reminds us of the centrality of these issues to Jesus and to God throughout human history. The Jewish temple was a place of wealth, beauty and power and was, similarly to the Basilica of St John Lateran, a place that is filled with irony. King David dreamt of a grand Temple and his son Solomon built it. The wealth with which Solomon built the Temple was the result of the spoil and plunder collected by his father David through his armies’ conquests of Israel’s neighbours, going back to the Egyptians of the Exodus. When the Temple is destroyed by the armies of Babylon in 586 BCE , its contents themselves become plunder and are put in the royal temple in Babylon. (2Chronicles). The book of Ezekiel, from which our first reading came, tells of the Temple’s reconstruction in about 520 BC, for it to be all but destroyed again by Antiochus the King of Syria in 164 BC. King Herod the great begins his reconstruction early in the first century AD and it is from this building that Jesus chased the moneychangers. The armies of Rome in 70 AD then destroyed this temple too. That is how it remained until the Muslims erected the dome of the Rock in the 7th century.

The Jews believed that the Temple was built on the site of the Rock Isaac was to be sacrificed on by his father Abraham. This was also the Rock from which the prophet Mohamed was believed to have ascended to heaven. It is for this reason that in 620 AD the first of two Mosques were built on the site. The first and largest of which is the Dome of the Rock finished in 680AD, the second is the Al-Aqsa Mosque finished in 780 AD. With this checkered history the Temple building was always a contentious issue for Israel embroiled in politics and power from beginning to end. The Mosques were converted to Churches by the crusaders but were reestablished as Mosques by Saladin when he recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. From the earliest days of the very first Temple we hear from the prophets numerous admonitions against corruption and power, and warnings to the priests who were being lead astray from the true purpose of God’s worship by riches and power.

That the Temple was built on the site of Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac is profoundly significant. Isaac, who carried the very wood for his own offering of himself to the very rock on which he was to die, is seen as the model for the suffering servant of Isaiah and of Jesus himself. Isaac was to take the place of the lamb as the preferred offering to God. In a sense Isaac himself was the original “Lamb of God” or Angus Dei, a title we now know as belonging to Jesus, God’s Son offered for us on the wood of the cross, which he also carried to a rock that would be the site of his death.

When Jesus acts against the moneychangers in the Temple he does so as part of the long history of prophets who have spoken against corruption and the misuse of power and wealth in the name of God and of God’s Temple. Jesus was the final embodiment of the sacrifice of Isaac who has come not just to cleanse the Temple physically but also to cleanse it spiritually as the fulfilment of Isaac and as the true Lamb of God. Jesus has come to end the sacrificial system of religion begun in Isaac embodied by the Temple becoming the new Temple himself. He comes to end death and sacrifice and earthly religion once and for all time. When Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple he speaks of himself, as John points out for us, but he speaks also of his role as the Lamb of God, in the tradition of Isaac. God saves Isaac from death, but through Jesus God saves us all from the sting of death.

I say Jesus was the end of earthly religion because the temple and the old way of relating to God are ended. Now God dwells within us and us in Him. This is why St Paul tells us that God’s Temple is not a building, which ultimately is worthless to God. Paul shows us that Jesus is the new Temple and through our faith we are part of that Temple also. In St Paul’s words 6” Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are”.[2] So we are the church. The building is nothing other than a place we can commune with God and partake in his grace. So our buildings and our holy places become nothing to us. At the same time what we do there, who we are there, is everything to us.

In Ridley Scott’s 2005 film the Kingdom of Heaven we see this idea being portrayed. The movie is about the events of the crusade in the Holy Land in the twelfth century but it is comment on the ongoing strife and turmoil that still continues. In the concluding scene of the movie, the hero Balian (played by Orlando Bloom) surrenders the city of Jerusalem to the leader of the Muslim armies, Saladin (played by Ghassan Massoud), after a long and bloody siege. In doing so he asks Saladin, “what is Jerusalem worth?” Saladin answers, “nothing!” and starts to walk away only to turn around again and add, “everything!”

This scene speaks about something that is important to Islam but it also points to the true nature of our Catholic faith. We believe that through a man who was nothing God accomplished everything. This is the irony of our faith and the irony of the cross. It shows us the irony that is part of how our faith requires us to relate to the world and to the material things of our homes and our churches. The world with its material things of wealth, and with its institutions and people of power, should be at the same time both essential and meaningless to us. We are challenged by our faith to see the world as nothing and our place and purpose in it as everything. Robert Hamerton Kelly says it this way, that “knowing the truth through the Cross, is like knowing that the “emperor has no clothes on”. We Christians are required to withhold our cooperation from the “superstitions and false beliefs in wealth and power”. Worldly power, he says, requires self-deception. Worldly power is violent and together with violence, wealth and war, “depends on the conspiracy of all to maintain it”. Followers and copiers of Jesus Christ know by faith that this is not how the world really is. These people of faith “withhold consent from the conspiracy, when they truly copy the example of Christ”. Such people “are dangerous because their gracious irony threatens the foundations of worldly wealth and power”. This is the threatening power we see in the life of Christ. We see it in the lives of the prophets, saints and martyrs. This is the irony of the Christian faith. It is what we see in all people who boldly stand against power and corruption in the name of the love of God.

I end with the words of Robert Hamerton-Kelly who puts this message at its most ironic and most simple when he says of all Christian believers,

These are the “nothings” that God uses to bring the “somethings” to nothing[3].

 References

[1] Catholic Lectionary. (2009). . Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[2] Catholic Lectionary. (2009). . Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[3] Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 84:

Bibliography                                            

“Archbasilica of St. John Lateran” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archbasilica_of_St._John_Lateran

Bredin, M. R. (2003). John’s account of Jesus’ demonstration in the temple: violent or nonviolent? Biblical Theology Bulletin, 33(2), 44+.

Brown, R. E. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29, p. 119). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamerton-Kelly, R. (1992). Sacred violence: Paul’s hermeneutic of the cross. Fortress Press.

“Kingdom of Heaven”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Heaven_(film)

Wood, William Pape. (1991). John 2:13-22. Interpretation, (1), 59.

The Girardian Lectionary. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/lent3b.htm

The Girardian Lectionary. http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/epiphany7a.htm

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