Today, we celebrate the oldest and first-ranked of Rome's four great basilicas. St. John was surnamed "Lateran" because it stands on the site of the palace of the family of the Laterani. During his reign as emperor, Constantine gave the palace and its lands to the church in 311. A church council was first held at the Lateran in 313. A papal residence until the scandal of Avignon, St. John is considered the cathedral of Rome and the mother church of Christendom. From the 12th century, this day, Nov. 9, has been observed as the anniversary of its dedication.
Today, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us, "that great cloud of witnesses who surround us" (Hebrews 12:1) and support us with their prayers. Of course, there is sadness when a friend or family member dies, but, in the end, it is faith that enables us to surrender our mourning and be joyful in our memories.
I'm still haunted by a late 1960s survey of American Catholics. Participants were asked just one question: What's the more important law -- love your neighbor, or give up meat on Friday? More than 50 percent responded, "Give up meat on Friday." When meatless Fridays trump love of neighbor, we Catholics are in deep trouble.
David Letterman didn't invent the top 10 list. In one form or another, such inventories have been around for a long time -- even during the biblical period.
Our second reading, the opening of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians sets up our consideration of today's Scriptures. Paul invites us to listen to his letter as though we were the community originally addressed, to bask in his description of us, and nod in agreement with the members of that early community of Greek-speaking Christians.
In the sacred texts we hear today, Isaiah and the Matthean evangelist offer their understanding of the kingdom of God -- or, as Matthew preferred, the kingdom of heaven. Both of the sacred authors thought of the kingdom in terms of a banquet of rich food and choice wines, prepared by God.
When the eighth-century prophet Isaiah had a harsh truth to communicate to his contemporaries, he wrapped his message in a ballad -- a love song that told of God's love and Israel's repeated infidelity. He warned of judgment and well-deserved punishment, but he sang of these realities, and thereby created an opening in the hearts of those who might otherwise have turned a deaf ear.
Not everyone's happy with God's forgiveness.
When I preached on these three readings years ago while in residence at our cathedral, I got lots of feedback -- little of it positive. One man, for instance, came up after the Eucharist and angrily informed me, "I didn't like that sermon about forgiveness at all." Then, whirling around as he was going out the door, he yelled, "Thank God my two teenage boys didn't hear that [expletive]! If they had, I'd never be able to control them again!"
I have to be honest: I think this selection from Isaiah is one of the most disagreeable readings in either Testament. Who wants to be reminded that God does not share our opinions? In some way, this teaching seems to trump even the command to love our enemies because "God's ways" question enmity itself.
Have you seen the movie "Spartacus"? There have been several versions of the story of this Thracian gladiator and slave (109-71 B.C.) who united his fellow slaves in a revolt against the Roman empire. Historians estimate that the slave army grew to between 90,000 to 125,000 people at its peak. After several successful onslaughts on Rome, Spartacus and his army were defeated. Although his body was never found, some 6,000 slaves were crucified all along the road from Rome to Capua. This cruel punishment was intended to warn others against any further insurrection.
Today, the sacred texts put us in touch with the truth that we are not yet holy as God is holy or perfect as God is perfect. We fall short of our goals; we miss the mark; we sin. But we are not without hope, because the God who created us in the divine image loves us and wants us to be the best reflection of the Godhead that we can be. The God who loves us also wants to enter into a relationship with us from which we will draw life, true happiness and deep fulfillment.