Suddenly it all came to an end: Diocletian’s Great Persecution, started in 303, was brought to a definitive and momentous end ten years later when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313. By this act, he restored and expanded the religious liberties of Christians and commenced a policy of tolerance and benefaction which today’s feast implicitly recalls.
While the total number of martyrs (3,000-3,500) pales by comparisons to the carnage and horrors visited up the human race since the dawn of Modernity, their deaths, among other things, should cast doubt on the currently fashionable myth of pagan tolerance. The pagan emperors blamed Christians for the weakness of the Roman Empire. In times of crisis, Catholics, with our strange ways and our uplifting and demanding vision of human dignity, are perennial targets for demonization and scapegoating as the darker periods of Church history amply demonstrate.
Constantine’s generosity toward the Church, however, did not lead to the end of the story, as if the last sixteen hundred years had not taught us a thing or two about the blessings and burdens of working in close collaboration with the State, any state. Still, we should be cautious in projecting our evaluation of the centuries that succeeded Constantine, as is sometimes the case today, when the entire “Constantinian Shift” is characterized as a betrayal of the Gospel and a secularization of the Church. This critique, not without some merit, forgets to consider the enormous sense of relief that must have come upon the Church in the wake of this unforeseen turn of events. The same empire, which had tortured, maimed and killed Christians, now wished to recognize a place for Christians in society and further garnished the Church with gifts, seeking Her intercession with God to secure the blessings of peace and prosperity.
Something new was indeed seen upon the earth: besides the legal protections, Christian houses of worship and episcopal residences were now constructed with imperial benefaction, among which is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, “mother and head of all the churches in the city – and the world.” The appearance of new monumental buildings, in Rome and in the New Rome (humbly named “Constantinople,” meaning Constantine’s City, after its founder), marks in marble and mortar a new stage in the story of the Church, in some ways similar to the experience of the Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament.
Now the Church could appear visibly and publicly in the cityscapes and landscapes of the Empire, building homes for the prayer, worship, preaching and charity of Her congregations, “churches.” To this day, wherever religious freedom is respected and cherished, we still find parish churches to shelter our communities of prayer, worship, preaching and charity. Where religious freedom is absent, however, Christian life suffers like the martyrs. The wanton destruction of churches in Iraq and Syria, to name but one example of the violence aimed at Christians today, bears this truth out: while the Church is not a building, churches are signs of the blessings of peace and prosperity, pointing to the possibility of a positive and mutually beneficial collaboration between Catholics and the State. The Feast of Saint John Lateran invites us to hope in times of trial and difficulty that God can at any moment raise up a “Constantine.”
Hope in the face of destruction and despair is also one of the messages of the Gospel, wherein Our Lord dramatically announces the imminent destruction of the grand Herodian Temple in Jerusalem. Herod the Great, an Iudemean, from a people whom the Maccabean armies conquered in the Second Century B.C., strengthened his weak Jewish credentials by undertaking monumental building projects, the crown jewel of which was the Temple in Jerusalem. The magnificent Temple was the center of the worship of the true and living God on earth, the destination for annual pilgrimages of tens of thousands, including frequent visits of the Holy Family, the focal point of national aspirations, an important center of commerce and, lastly, a source of fresh, kosher meat. The Temple touched every aspect of Israelite life, and standing guard over it was the Roman garrison in the Antonia Fortress, reminding anyone who entered that Israel was a subject of pagan Rome.
Especially in John’s Gospel – from which today’s Gospel comes – the Temple is a frequent and prominent location for Our Lord’s teaching and ministry. He arrives during Passover – the same time at which he will suffer His Passion three years later – to perform a great prophetic action: to drive out the animals and the moneychangers from the Temple.
It has been commonplace to explain this action as a purification of the Temple. This interpretation suggests that the administration of the Temple had become corrupt: the money changers symbolizing avarice and the animals implying some kind of inappropriate mess as if to say, we would never take our pets to Mass! On a spiritual level, this understanding might be useful to inspire us to allow the Lord to drive out the filth and corruption that disturbs our discipleship, but the original meaning of Our Lord’s action is much more profound and far more radical: he is announcing the end of the Temple and all that it implies about worship, the nation, the economy and food.
Neither the moneychangers nor the animals in any way represented a corruption of the Temple! On the contrary, they enabled the numerous pilgrims to trade their pagan money for Temple currency, which was required to buy the sacrifices prescribed in the Torah. Our Lord was not reforming a broken system; he was declaring its end. The Temple had served its purpose: a new temple appeared on earth, not in marble and mortar, but in flesh and blood. A new creation is underway, and He is its heart.
Indeed, three years later, Our Lord wept over Jerusalem because the Holy City had failed to recognize the visitation of the Lord and, thereby, heed his message (Lk 19:41-44): to turn away from the violent temptations of national liberation and to embrace rather Israel’s difficult and demanding mission to bring the pagan Roman Empire to God through the Gospel. Fewer than 40 years later, the Roman army would crush the Jewish rebellion, thereby fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy about the Holy City. Yet, Israel’s mission to Rome continued in the form of the Church, that portion of Israel that recognized Jesus to be the Messiah, around whom the nations were gathering. The Church carries Israel’s mandate forward in history, reaching out to every human being, inviting each person to enter into the covenant and to worship in the new Temple, that is, the Mystical Body of Christ, by the offering of the Holy Eucharist. The Church is an alternative society that goes beyond time and place. She walks with the various societies, cultures and states that constitute human history and dwells among them in her members, but she is always something more and something greater.
In times of ignorance and violence, like today, Catholics should take great comfort in the fact Christ is always with us, and – no matter whether our buildings stand or fall – his Bride, the Church, cannot fail to make grace and mercy present where Catholics dwell. Wherever we are, our faithfulness and charity point to the new Creation, where God and man dwell together in harmony, face-to-face, and the sufferings of this life are transformed into the victory of love over death. Suddenly, it all changed: not because of Constantine, but because of Jesus, the eternal king and true temple.
Prepared for Aleteia by the
Canonry of Saint Leopold
. Click here to learn more about the Canons Regular of St. Augustine.