The Body, the Temple: Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

Ezekiel 47:1–2, 8–9, 12; 1 Cor. 3:9c–11. 16–17; John2:13–22

Today, we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the building that Constantine gave to the Roman Church and which has served as the Cathedral Church of Rome since that time. It might seem a bit odd to be celebrating a building, but our faith has always valued sacred space, just as our Jewish elder brothers did. Our readings today shed some light about why this might be the case.

In the passage from Ezekiel, we hear that the waters flow out of the temple into the Arabah. The Arabah is what we these days call the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth and one of the saltiest bodies of water as well. Because of its salinity, not much can live it. Yet Ezekiel says that water will flow from the temple toward the Arabah and make it fresh and that the water gives life wherever it flows. So this temple is a font of living water. Compare that to Jesus’ words in John 4 about living water welling up within us. Keep that verse in mind. The temple is both a source of purification and a source of life. These two qualities are linked. Often purification is necessary for life to take root.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus gets righteously angry with the sellers in the temple. There’s an internet meme that makes its way around Facebook these days. It says, “When someone asks you ‘What would Jesus do?’, remember that throwing tables and chasing people around with a whip is not out of the question.”

Canon Frasier just the other week explained that Jesus was responding to the fact that the vendors in the temple were selling their wares in the Court of the Gentiles, essentially denying the gentiles access to a place in the temple where they could worship. This was an injustice to the gentiles—denying them the grace of being permitted into the Lord’s temple.

We have those who today would inadvertently do the same to people who are less fortunate. One of the charges often leveled at the Church is that it possesses too much wealth. The remedy, it’s claimed, is to sell all the art, architecture, and real estate of the Church  and distribute the proceeds to the poor. What people who adhere to this thinking fail to understand is that the beauty and riches of the Church belong to all—rich and poor alike. Where else can a homeless Catholic go to pray in this kind of beauty? Where can a poor man go to stand and worship his God in a place that aspires to heavenly glory? If the Church did such a thing, it would spiritually deprive the poor, who have the least materially. Wouldn’t that be an injustice like the one posed by the vendors in the temple? This is what results from considering material wealth before spiritual. Latching on the former eventually leads us to the loss of the latter.

Finally, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians associates the temple in Jerusalem to the human person. The body, he writes, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and anyone who destroys this temple will answer to God. So looking back at the first reading and the Gospel, we can assert a number of things about this temple, the body. First, it is a source that should purify and give life to other things. What flows from this temple, from my mouth and yours, should be a source of life and a source of purification to others. Jesus confirms this truth in Matthew 15 when he says that it is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.

It is not what goes into the mouth that corrupts but what comes out of the mouth.

Second, allowing material concerns to enter and take root in a place of holiness is unjust. That went for the temple in Jerusalem; it went for the Church during the time when some abused indulgences; and it goes for our times now when we allow the concerns of the world to push aside the concerns we should have for our spiritual well being and the well being of our loved ones. If we’re more concerned about making soccer practice than observing a Holy Day of obligation, then our priorities are in the wrong place.

As St. Paul says, the body is a temple, and as the two other readings note, temples have a particular sacred purpose. We have a moral tradition in the Church called Natural Law, and it is the basis for much of the moral reasoning that the Church proposes for your guidance. Note that I said “proposes” rather than “commands.” That is because the Church can only propose what should be done. We have to choose what we will do. I don’t see any cardinals or bishops following anyone around and preventing us from skipping Mass or from doing anything else we choose to do, so I think I can rest my case on that point.

This notion of Natural Law says that we should use our bodies as they were designed, that we should look to our natural purpose to know how to act. When we fail to consider the natural purpose of our bodies, we suffer natural consequences. For example, we have an appetite that prompts us to eat when we need sustenance. The purpose of the appetite is to help us seek the nutrients our bodies need to survive and thrive. If we eat more than we need, we suffer natural consequences—weight gain, intestinal discomfort, or diabetes. If we ignore the appetite, we suffer natural consequences—weight loss, brittle bones, anemia, or other maladies. If we choose to indulge in things that satisfy our sense of taste but provide little sustenance or even contain things that are detrimental to our health, we suffer natural consequences—gout, alcoholism, and other chronic illnesses. The evidence is so obvious, but we humans are adept at looking past it.

Our culture is in denial about Natural Law, but its effects are so painfully obvious. It is also safe to say that when we ignore Natural Law, we suffer both physical and spiritual consequences.

In 1968, Blessed Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, a much maligned but stunningly prophetic encyclical. In it, he outlined the natural consequences of separating sex from marriage and procreation. Let me go back to the language of Natural Law and point out that the sexual appetite has clear purpose: it is intended for emotional bonding and for producing children. It is obvious to everyone that sex has a biologically natural and intended result—children, which are a tremendous blessing. Sex also has the result of emotional bonding, which is naturally present to encourage couples to stay together to address the natural and good effects of their actions.

These two purposes cannot be separated from each other without natural negative consequences But that is what happened in that era 50 years ago—sex was separated from its natural purpose, and what we have seen in the last 50 years is the natural consequence: devaluation of marriage and children, the treatment of people as objects, the debasement of sex, and the deterioration of the family, and more recently, the redefinition of marriage from its natural and almost universally accepted character. Most of these natural consequences were predicted in detail by Pope Paul’s encyclical, and every prediction has come to fruition. In fact we’ve gone beyond what he predicted.

Our bodies are our temples, and we will suffer if we don’t treat them as such. We suffer the more when we allow the temple to be crowded by worldly concerns and forget the purpose for which the temple exists. But most of all, others will suffer because we are not sources of life. We are called to evangelization—to spread the good news of Christ. Remember the purpose of your body the temple: to be a spring that purifies and brings life to the dryness in the souls of others.

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About dcnbillburns

I am a deacon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise.
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