9 November [Lateran basilica]
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
‘St John Lateran’ is a church in Rome, not a person. In the words carved in front, it is the “mother of all churches.” It is the pope’s official ecclesiastical seat in Rome (St Peter’s in the Vatican is not a cathedral), and the popes resided there for many centuries. It was the first Christian church building. The ground for it was donated by the Emperor Constantine early in the 4th century. It was rebuilt four or five times. The Vandals wrecked it in the 5th century, an earthquake did the same in the 9th, two fires destroyed it at different times in the 14th, and there was little left of the original when the interior was redone in the 17th. It is not a beautiful church; the statues that line the centre isle are so massive in scale that you feel diminished as you walk there.
Why are we making a fuss about a church building in Rome? It is because we are thinking symbolically. A church – any church – is a symbol of a believing community, just as a house is a symbol of the self. Johann Tauler said, “We must go into our house, our souls…” We search for God there, and God searches for us. This is not usually a peaceful process: “God ransacks the house,” Tauler said, “throwing aside one thing after another.”
But churches all look so finished; the seeking and finding seem to be long over; there is nothing there to express the drama of the great search. Those massive statues say nothing about searching; they are all about assertion. Too much assertion and emphasis can frighten away a seeker. We cannot be brow-beaten into faith; when we are, it is someone else’s belief we end up with, not our own. Then it is just that: belief, not faith. You can pick up and drop beliefs at will; they are like clothes that are in and out of fashion. But faith is something deeper and more difficult; it does not come cheap: it can grow only out of our own search. God comes searching for us, Tauler said: for us in all our ragged imperfection.
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