THE DEDICATION OF THE CHURCH OF OUR SAVIOUR (COMMONLY CALLED ST JOHN LATERAN)
Feast: November 9
From the beginning of the world altars were erected for offering sacrifices to God, and the places which were deputed for this supreme act of religion were always looked upon as sacred. Abel, Noe, Abraham, and the other patriarchs raised altars in retired and sanctified places, where they some times assembled their families or tribes to pay to God the most solemn religious worship. Abraham, to make the place more awful and retired, planted a grove round his altar at Beersabe, and went thither religiously with his family to offer prayers and sacrifices. Jacob erected an altar of stone at Bethel, pouring oil upon it, called the place the house of God, and vowed to pay to him the tithes of all his possessions. Christians had from the beginning chambers or oratories in private houses, set apart for their religious assemblies and sacrifices, as appears from St. Paul, and from the Upper Room, in which the apostles are frequently mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles to have assembled, which seems to have been in the house of John Mark. In the time of St. John the Evangelist the place for the assembly of the faithful with the bishop is called the church or Ecclesia St. Clement of Rome says that God had appointed places to be appropriated to his worship. St. Ignatius often mentions one altar in every church and one bishop. Tertullian calls the place of the assembly in which the baptismal renunciations were made, the Eucharist offered, &c., Ecclesia, or the church, and the house of God. The heathen author of the dialogue called Philopatris mentions the Christians' place of religious assemblies. Lampridius, in the life of Alexander Severus, reports that that emperor adjudged to the Christians a place for their religious worship which the victuallers claimed. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus built many churches, as St. Gregory of Nyssa relates in his life. That ancient doctor, in his canonical epistle, and St. Dionysius of Alexandria, distinctly mention the church. St. Cyprian often speaks of the church, which he sometimes calls the Lord's house, or Dominicum. Eusebius says that during the peace which the church enjoyed from the persecution of Valerian to that of Diocletian, the ancient churches were not large enough to contain the faithful, "and therefore they erected from the foundation new ones more ample and spacious in every city." Origen, indeed, Minutius Felix, and Lactantius say Christians had no temples or altars; but evidently mean for idols and bloody sacrifices, like those of the heathens. Lactantius himself speaks of a Christian church in Phrygia, which the heathens burnt with the whole assembly in it. Gildas and Bede testify that the churches were demolished in Britain in the persecution of Diocletian, and rebuilt when it was over. St. Optatus says there were forty churches in Rome before the last persecution which were taken away, but restored to the Christians by Maxentius. It is a very ancient tradition at Rome that the house of the senator Pudens was converted into a church by St. Peter or, rather, that he established an oratory in that palace.
Constantine the Great, by his victory over Maxentius, gained on the 28th of October in 312, became master of Italy and Africa, and, under his protection and the favour of Licinius, who reigned in the East till the year 323, the Christians began to build everywhere sumptuous churches. That of Tyre, begun by the citizens under the direction of Paulinus, their bishop, in 313, is minutely described by Eusebius. The persecution, which Licinius renewed in 319, put a stop to such works in the East; but after his defeat, and especially after the council of Nice, Constantine built and adorned many churches at his own expense. Among these, Eusebius mentions a most magnificent one at Nicomedia, another at Antioch in the form of an octagon, which, from its rich ornaments, was called the Golden Church; others at Jerusalem and in several other parts of Palestine, and at Constantinople. The great Church of Sancta Sophia there, dedicated to Christ, the increased Wisdom, which was magnificently rebuilt by Justinian, was first founded by Constantine, and finished by Constantius, in 360. Constantine built also at Constantinople the beautiful Church of the Twelve Apostles which, as Eusebius describes it, "was vastly high; yet had all its walls covered with marble, its roof overlaid with gold, and the outside covered with gilded brass instead of tiles." Among a great number of churches which this pious emperor built, the principal is that of our Saviour, which he founded on Mount Coelio, in Rome. It stood upon the spot, and was built in part with the materials of the palace of Lateran, which gave name to that part of the hill, and which had been the house of Plautius Lateranus, a rich Roman senator, whom Nero put to death as an accomplice in Piso's conspiracy. Constantine inherited it by his wife Fausta, whence it was called Faustina, and more frequently the Constantinian Basilic. The founder built a chapel within the inclosed area of this church and dependent upon it, dedicated in honour of St. John Baptist, with a second altar dedicated in honour of St. John Evangelist. This chapel was the Baptisterion, a fine structure, and most richly ornamented. Upon the font was placed an image of St. John Baptist. We find by the ancient memorials of the church of Rome that Constantine gave to this baptisterion, or chapel, thirteen thousand nine hundred and thirty-four golden pence yearly income, in houses and lands not only in Italy, but also in Sicily, Africa, and Greece, which amounts to about ten thousand four hundred and fifty pounds; for the golden penny at that time was worth fifteen shillings of our money. But if we consider the difference of the price of things, the sum would be now of a much greater value. This chapel having always been a place of great fame and devotion, from it the whole church, though dedicated to our Saviour, has been generally called the Church of St. John Lateran. The Lateran church is styled the head, the mother, and the mistress of all churches, as an inscription on its walls imports. It would be too long to enumerate the precious relics of our divine Redeemer's passion, and of innumerable martyrs with which it is enriched. Pope Leo I established among the canons of the Lateran basilic the regular observance which St. Austin had instituted in Africa. Alexander II placed here reformed regular canons which he called from St. Frigidian's at Lucca, in 1061, and declared this church the head of that reformed congregation, which still bears the name of the regular canons of St. John of Lateran; though these canons have been removed hence to the Church of our Lady <della pace>, and secular canons with the title of prelates serve this basilic according to the constitutions of Sixtus III in 1456 and Sixtus IV in 1483.
Solomon's temple was dedicated to the divine worship by the most solemn religious rites and prayers. The Christians, who blessed their food, their houses, and whatever they used, could not fail to consecrate or bless oratories—which they deputed for divine service: though during the persecutions they celebrated the sacred mysteries in houses, prisons, private places, &c.
Hence churches have been usually consecrated by solemn rites and prayers, and it is a grievous sacrilege to profane them, or do in them anything but what has an immediate relation to the divine service: the church being the house of God. Though he be everywhere, he is said to reside particularly in heaven, because he there displays his presence by his glory and gifts. In like manner he honours the church with his special presence, being there in a particular manner ready to receive our public homages, listen to our petitions, and bestow on us his choicest graces. How wonderful were the privileges which he annexed, how magnificent the promises which he made, to the Jewish temple! With what religious awe did his servants honour it! how severely were they punished who sacrilegiously profaned it or its sacred vessels! There was then but one temple of the true God in the whole world; and his temple no infidel was ever suffered to enter further than the outer enclosure or court of the Gentiles. The Jews, that is, the faithful, had an inner court allotted to them, where they beheld the offering of the sacrifices and performed their devotions at a distance from the holy place, but were never permitted to go any further, nor even to enter this court, till they had been purified from all legal uncleanness by the ablutions and other rites prescribed by the law, an emblem of the interior purity of the soul. The Levites, though devoted to the divine service, were not admitted beyond the part allotted for the bloody sacrifices. None but priests could enter the sanctuary or holy place, and of these but one a week, by lot, could approach the golden altar to offer the daily sacrifice of frankincense. As for the holy of holies, or innermost sanctuary, which God sanctified by his more immediate presence, and where the ark, the tables of the law, and Aaron's rod were kept; this no one could ever enter on any account except the high priest alone, and he only once a year, on the solemn feast of expiation, carrying the blood of victims sacrificed. Neither was he to do this without having been prepared by solemn purifications and expiations; and the smoke of perfumes was to cover the ark and the propitiary or oracle called the Seat of God before the blood was offered. Yet the temple of Solomon and the holy of holies were only types of our sacred tabernacles in which is offered, not the blood of sheep and goats, but the adorable blood of the immaculate Lamb of God. "Verily, the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." When the Jewish temple was consecrated, to inspire the people with an awe for the holy house, "God filled it with a cloud; nor could the priests stand and minister, by reason of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God." This miracle was repeated when holocausts were first offered in it. The like wonder had often happened when Moses and Aaron entered the tabernacle. When God came to give the law, Moses himself was affrighted and trembled, and the people, being terrified, stood afar off. Yet all these things were but shadows to our tremendous mysteries, in which we are sprinkled with the precious blood of our Redeemer; and it is offered by our hands, and we are thereby associated to the "company of many thousands of angels," &c.
A ray of the divine presence ought to pierce our souls when we approach the sanctuary, and we ought with trembling to say to ourselves, "How terrible is this placer this is no other than the house of God and the gate of heaven." Do we not enter the awful gates as we should have done the miraculous cloud? Do we not seem to hear with Moses that voice from the bush, "Approach not hither: put off the shoes from thy feet, for the ground on which thou standest is holy?" Do we not put away all earthly thoughts and affections? Do we not veil our faces by the awe with which we are penetrated, and the strict guard we place upon our senses when we appear before him in his holy place, before whose face the heavens and the earth withdraw themselves, and their place is not found. The seraphims tremble in his presence and veil their faces with their wings. Cassian mentions that the Egyptian monks put off their sandals whenever they went to celebrate or receive the holy mysteries. As the Jews upon entering the temple bowed themselves toward the mercy-seat, so it seems to have been derived from them in the beginning of the church, as Mr. Mede and Mr. Gingham observe that the Greek and all the Oriental Christians took up the custom, which they still retain, of going into the middle of the church at their ingress and bowing toward the altar, repeating those words of the publican in the gospel, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" which all know who have visited any of their churches at Rome, Ancona, or in the East. The custom of sprinkling the forehead with holy water in entering the church is of primitive antiquity; and the use of holy water is recommended by tradition and miracles. In taking it as an emblem of interior purity, we pray in sincere compunction and holy fear that God in his mercy sprinkle us with hyssop dipped, not in the blood of goats and calves, which could not take away sin, but in the adorable blood of Christ, which may perfectly cleanse our souls, that we may present ourselves spotless in his holy house and divine presence.
1 Gen. xxi. 33.
2 Gen. xxviii. 18, 22; xxxv. 14.
3 Cor. xi. 22.
4 Acts i. 13, &c.
5 Acts xii. 12.
6 2 Chron. or Paralip. vii. 2, 14, 15, 16.
7 Gen. xxviii. 16.
8 2 Chron. or Par. v. 14.
9 2 Chron. vii. 3.
10 Heb. xi. 21.
11 Exod. xx. 18.
12 Heb. xi. 22
13 Gen. xxviii. 17.
14 Exod. iii. 5.
15 Apoc. xx. 11.
16 Isa. vi. 2.
17 Instit. lib. i. c. 10.
18 Constit. Apost. lib. viii. c. 29; St. Epiphan. haer. 30, in vita Josephi Com. sub Constantino; St. Hieron. in vita St. Hilarion; Theodoret, Hist. Eccl. lib. v. c. 2 et 12; Beda de St. Germano Antis. Hist. lib. i. s. 17.
(Taken from Vol. III of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler.)