Sunday, May 31, 2009

11-9-2008: Lateran Basilica Dedication (A)

Ezekiel 47:1-2,8-9,12/Psalm 46/1 Corinthians 3:9-11,16-17/John 2:13-22
A paradigm, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn once noted, is an entire worldview. And when that paradigm shifts, history changes tracks; new pathways are forged from the overgrown bush; and our collective destiny is perceived with a bit more clarity.

That’s what happened some 1700 years ago when the Emperor Constantine decided to favor the once-persecuted Christians and let them worship freely and in edifices reflective of their worldview. In this paradigm shift of inestimable significance, Constantine built a basilica in the part of Rome called the Lateran and dedicated it to Jesus as Savior (later that designation would change to honor both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist). It would be the first public Christian church to be built and would be called the Mother and Head of all the churches of the City and the world. Inscribed over the entrance to the basilica are the words: In all the world there is no place holier than this. Its doors were taken from the Roman Senate building, no doubt reminding the ordinary Roman citizen that things were indeed changing: allegiances shifting, the young jettisoning their parents’ old prejudices, baptism making slaves and citizens of equal stature in the body of the Church and within the walls of the Lateran Basilica in particular.

For more than a millennium the popes of Rome lived and ministered there and it remains, still, the cathedral seat of the bishop of Rome as pope. In its long history it has hosted some of the great ecumenical councils which, despite their penchant to pronounce anathemas, sought to bring the Church into dialogue with the wider culture as times changed and sincere people questioned -- as they always have – how divine and human should intercourse.

Whatever your political persuasion it would be hard not to acknowledge the paradigm shift which took place this past election day. Pundits on both sides argued that the election should not be about race – as if race were only a superficial element in the make-up of this campaign. I would suggest, on the contrary, it was all about race – thank God. Outward appearance can be immensely symbolic of more profound underpinnings. President-elect Obama is, in his physical make-up, in his genetic inheritance, the embodiment of America’s unique history of both prejudice and promise. He is the blend of race and culture which not too long ago would have been condemned as evidence of the sin of miscegenation, but now embraced as a sign of hope, the desired closure to America’s original sin – the enslavement of African-American peoples and the segregation imposed upon them even after emancipation. President-elect Obama’s victory, symbolic of a hard-won equality, is a visible reminder of where we’ve been and where we long to be. Slavery is America’s deepest wound and the scar that will eventually evince its healing will forever remain on the body politic. Perhaps such hurt can only be assuaged by someone who embodies and inherits both sides of the dilemma. The paradigm shift is immense: miscegenation, once the emblem of sinful and forbidden intercourse, has become, in the person of Barack Obama, a sign of hope and harmony.

That is no easy burden to bear precisely because it emerges out of Obama’s existence and not from his choice. Don’t misunderstand. I have no illusions about the new president’s humanity. He will no doubt make as many mistakes in office as anyone would. He is, in the end, a politician - a fact which probably disqualifies him from immediate canonization; but it doesn’t make him a bad person either. (Some historians consider Constantine’s conversion to Christianity as a politically savvy move and not the result of a heart-felt faith). Regardless of political allegiance, however, honest Americans will acknowledge this historic paradigm shift in America’s history and pray God will make much good of it.

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