Walking the Cross of Christ in St. John Lateran
Among Flannery O’Connor’s memorable remarks was her assertion about faith: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” O’Connor would probably have enjoyed a walk inside the Basilica of St. John’s Lateran.
Although most ancient Roman churches have retained their basilica shape (rectangular with the semi-circular apse at one end), the Church of St. John Lateran is in the form of a cross—made so by Pope Leo XIII. Walking into the pope’s cathedral in Rome, we step into the cross of Christ—the cost of our faith. Above our heads, a statue of Christ rises over the Lateran’s façade. His right arm is extended to welcome us; his left arm embraces the cross. “Come inside” the cross-bearing Jesus bids us, “walk around inside my cross, my church.” Dare we enter? Dare we walk into the cross of Christ? Would a big electric blanket be preferable?
Stanley Hauerwas, in his Unleashing the Scriptures, tells the story of two brothers, Clarence and Robert Jordan. In 1942 Clarence founded the Koinonia Farm, an interracial community near Americus, Georgia. He sought his brother Robert’s legal talents to help protect his controversial community. Robert refused: “I follow Jesus . . . up to a point,” he explained. “Could that point . . . be the cross?” Clarence inquired. “Yes,” Robert confessed, arguing that if everyone followed Jesus to the cross, “we wouldn’t have a church would we?” To which Clarence pithily responded, “The question is, ‘Do you have a church?’ ” Clarence Jordan, Flannery O’Connor, and Pope Leo XIII understood that to have faith and to build a church means walking in the cross of Christ.
On the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, we hear from the prophet Ezekiel. Six centuries before Christ, Ezekiel preached to a community of exiles in Babylon. Early in his prophecy Ezekiel slams the religious practices in the Jerusalem Temple: “see the evil abominations they are doing here” (Ezek 8:9). The Temple rituals did not reflect God’s hope for humanity. So Ezekiel visualizes the dawn of a new Temple from which issue forth the rivers that flowed from the garden of Eden and gave life to the earth at the dawn of creation (Gen 2:10). These rivers will give life even to the famous Dead Sea (what Ezekiel calls the “arabah”), filling its once lifeless waters with abundant fish.
In the Gospel, Jesus enters the Temple area and notices people changing Roman coins to pay the Temple tax and selling animals for sacrifice. Such services were an added convenience for pilgrims who otherwise would have had to drag an animal from home. Lost in the bustle was the sacrality of Ezekiel’s life-giving Temple that, in Johannine language, becomes Jesus own body, crucified, raised, and giving life to the world. Jesus’ interlocutors are baffled (joining Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman, and Peter at the Last Supper), so the Gospel writer intervenes to ensure that we get it: “He was speaking about the Temple of his own body.”
From Ezekiel’s new Temple flows the waters that give life to the people of Israel. From the Temple of Jesus’ body, crucified and raised, flow the life-giving waters of baptism. The cruciform design of St. John Lateran reminds us of the cost of that baptism. So let’s accept Jesus’ invitation to enter the pope’s cathedral and marvel at its beauty, knowing that with each step we travel deeper into the cross of Christ.
—Fr. Craig E. Morrison
Craig E. Morrison, O.Carm., teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and lives at the ancient Roman parish dedicated to St. Martin of Tours.
Bricks of the Holy Door of St. John Lateran from Different Years
1925 & 1933
In 2008 Father Kunst purchased a series of holy year bricks from a Roman citizen selling them on auction. They belonged to the man’s grandmother who had recently died at 104 years of age. The man’s grandfather worked at the Spanish embassy at the Vatican. On one of the bricks is written the notation that it was intended as a gift to his grandfather and his family.
From the Glossary of Papal Artifacts
There are four major basilicas in Rome, each having a Holy Door. They are St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul Outside the Walls. These doors are normally sealed shut from the inside and cannot be opened until the Holy Year. Holy Doors are sealed shut with Holy Year Bricks. Upon opening the door at the start of the Holy Year, great ceremony is attached to the removal of these bricks.
Pilgrims flock to Rome during these Jubilees that occur every twenty-five years.
In the Catholic tradition a holy year or Jubilee is a great religious event, a year of reconciliation and forgiveness. It dates to biblical times and was evident even in the Law of Moses where it was celebrated every fifty years.
Holy years are marked with much pomp and ceremony by the Vatican. There are specific Holy Doors at each of the four main basilicas, and they are marked by the Holy Year bricks which are ceremoniously removed before the pope can walk through the Holy Door to signify the start of the Holy Year.
Holy Year Bricks
The bricks used to seal the Holy Year Doors between Jubilees at the four major basilicas in Rome.
Great pomp and ceremony is connected to these bricks. In earlier times, the pope would literally take a hammer to smash through the bricks. Crowds gathered to watch this ceremony and to collect pieces of the bricks as souvenirs or relics of the Holy Year. This practice, however, became dangerous as people were killed attempting to grab the bricks.
Eventually that practice ended and the bricks are now removed in advance and distributed to people working at the Vatican.
Holy Year bricks are quite prized, ornate and large with symbols of the papacy on them.