Those who select liturgical readings have a problem when it comes to the feasts of church dedications. The only churches which early Christians knew were communities of Jesus’ disciples who gathered in homes to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. During the period in which the Christian Scriptures were composed, no one had yet dared call a building "a church."

Sunday’s second reading (I Cor 3: 9-11, 16-17) tells us that Jesus’ first followers believed the place in which God most dwelt was in the individual Christian.

"You are God’s building," Paul reminds his readers. "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" Paul’s theology was a quantum leap forward from his Jewish roots.

Holy places

In his ground-breaking work, "The Sacred and The Profane," Mircea Eliade showed that people in the ancient world presumed God had designated certain places to be holy from the moment of creation. We think places are holy because holy things happened there, but they believed such places were holy simply because God decided to create them holy.

These places were the connecting links between heaven and earth. Human beings were expected to discover such sacred spots and set them apart from their profane surroundings. This happens in the first reading (Gen 28: 11-18).

Jacob, running away from his brother Esau’s death threat, arrives at a pagan shrine. He sleeps there, not because he believes it’s holy, but because it offers him safety. Then the unexpected happens. He discovers that, although it’s pagan property, it’s one of Yahweh’s holy places.

His dream depicts Yahweh’s messengers going up and down the spiral staircase that twisted around all pagan ziggurat temples. Then Yahweh appears to promise him descendants and the land of Canaan. The key verse is Jacob’s proclamation, "Truly, Yahweh is in this spot, although I didn’t know it!" No one would have expected that a pagan temple was "an abode of God,...the gateway to heaven."

Holy us

Jesus’ first disciples seem to have rejected the concept that God designated certain geographic places as holy. They believed that, because Jesus as God had become one with us, we were holy. Yet, discovering our personal sacredness was just as difficult and amazing as discovering sacred places in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus is our guide in this process. Notice in the Gospel (Lk 19: 1-10), that He’s the only one who uncovers Zaccheaus’ holiness. As a tax collector, he’s forbidden to even visit Jewish holy places. Yet Jesus perceives that even this notorious sinner is "a descendant of Abraham." If Zaccheaus can’t go to God’s house, then Jesus will go to Zaccheaus’ house.

Once the tax collector discovers his own holiness, his behavior changes. "I give half my possessions to the poor," he declares. "If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall pay it back four times over." A holy person is starting to do holy things.

Perhaps our practice of calling buildings "churches" rather than calling communities "churches" is a sign that we’ve lost some of the charism of the early Christian community. It’s far easier and less threatening to construct a holy building than to discover the holiness God has embedded in each of us. If certain buildings are holy, it can only be because holy people use them for holy purposes.

(11/6/03)