This Sunday was the Feast of the Lateran Basilica, the “mother church” and very first basilica (Roman-style large public worship space) of the Church in Rome after the persecutions were ended. So it was a good day for ecclesiological reflection at Mass!
I was so taken by the first reading from Ezekiel 47 that I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Here it is, slightly abridged:
The angel brought me
back to the entrance of the temple,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple toward the east…
Water flowing out from the temple suggests the waters flowing out of Jesus’ pierced side, which some scholars identify as birthing imagery and the birth of the church.
He said to me,
“This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah,
and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
This made me think of the near-to-bursting net full of fish that Peter pulled up in the ending of John’s gospel, after Jesus told them to cast the net on the other side of the boat, and before the threefold “Feed my sheep” dialogue.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.”
But it was this last part that really sparked my imagination. Picture this: the temple representing the church, with the water flowing out of it representing the waters of baptism, the sacrament of initiation, the first sacrament that we all share, that brings us into the church. And it waters the trees, six trees close to the temple, three on each side of the river, the other six sacraments, always in season and available to us, which give us fruit for food and leaves for medicine. Look at the sacramental theology we could build around this image! It unites the metaphors of food and medicine that both exist in the NT and patristic writings. Especially when it comes to the eucharist, the West has emphasized food while the East has emphasized medicine, but we can have both. And then more trees, the sacramentals that structure and nourish and heal us in our Christian formation, as we live out our baptismal vocation.
I found this such a compelling image of the church that I was sure I’d find an icon of it – but no luck. And I’m not a good enough artist to draw the image in my mind’s eye. But I did find the image at the top of the post, which is used by DeepRiver, “a loose consortium of creative, technical and spiritual people with complementary gifts and ministries.” As they explicate it,
[This painting] says that the further you go with God, the more you remain in His presence then the deeper your relationship will be with Him and your experience of His power.
And then I found these images of the incredibly beautiful Christ Lutheran Church, an ELCA church in Pacific Beach:
This is just stunning. Imagine worshipping in this space! The artwork is by David J. Hetland, who describes it as follows:
Ezekiel 47 inspired this chancel mosaic for Christ Lutheran Church in San Diego (Pacific Beach), California. Using Mexican smalti, the five dimensional panels depict a wooded setting against which the radiant cross is set. From it flows living water, the source of life, fashioned from clear-glass bevels in an iron framework. After the water gently meanders onto the mosaic panel, under the altar and down the centre aisle (where the pews are offset along the stream’s path), it washes through the sanctuary doors and out into the street to welcome worshippers and passersby alike.
You can also read Christ Lutheran’s own description of their worship space, integrated with their church’s vision.
After those glorious images, it feels like a bit of a letdown to go back to the lectionary, but there’s some good stuff there so let’s do that. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is preaching about factionalism, of course, which he will do in his second letter to the same church – it seems to have been a real problem for them. And it is for us today as well, so this is a real word for the church today. Paul tells the church, tells us, that we are God’s building, and that Christ is our foundation. He goes on,
Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple,
God will destroy that person;
for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.
It’s ambiguous in English, whether Paul means the singular or the plural here. I looked it up; the Greek is singular, and this is a source of the commonplace image that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. But, given the context in the lectionary, given the feastday, I think we may rightly read it in the plural, as well. This reading yields an ecclesiology that emphasizes the Holy Spirit abiding within the church; and a very strong admonition against divisiveness and schism.
For the gospel reading, we get the passage from John frequently referred to as the “cleansing of the Temple.” With all that water imagery still washing around in our heads from Ezekiel, it might be tempting to focus on the “cleansing” part, but that would miss the mark. The main point of this passage, especially in this context, is Jesus’ identification of the Temple — the place of sacrifice, of reconciliation, of holiness — with his own body: an identification that his disciples did not understand until after he had been raised. This passage reminds us that, for all that we honor the Lateran Basilica, for all that we honor our own church buildings, it isn’t any of these buildings, built with stone or wood or brick, that matter. The church that matters is the Body of Christ.
One final note: while searching unsuccessfully for icons depicting Ezekiel 47, I did come across Locus Iste:
An exploration of ecumenical church-building & ecclesial architecture from a liturgical perspective written & curated by Jason John Paul Haskins.
Locus Iste examines the theory, history, and practice of architecture in service of liturgy and worship through research and blogging, design consultancy, and photography.
What a delightful discovery to make on a feast day honoring the church! Check out the website, the blog, or the tumblr, and feast your eyes on the church in all its ecumenical, architectural, and artistic diversity.