Do you go to Mass as a tourist or as a pilgrim?

Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran (Ex 47:1-12, 1 Cor 3:9-17, John 2:13-22)

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
If you have been to Rome, you probably visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran. This Church, whose dedication we celebrate today, is always packed with tourists, and rightly so. The history of the basilica is incredible. It was originally built by Constantine in the 4th century and until the 14th century was the home of the popes. Contrary to popular belief, St. John Lateran and not St. Peter’s is the cathedral of the Holy Father. For this reason, St. John Lateran is called “the mother and head of all churches on the earth”. Artistically the Church is stunning thanks in large part to the large statues of the twelve apostles dominating the interior. In addition to tourists, many pilgrims also visit the basilica. You can see them on their knees praying. They leave with more than just pictures. Maybe they know that before the basilica was named after Saints John the Baptist and John the Apostle it was originally called the Basilica of Our Saviour. The pilgrims realizes that above all else the basilica is a place to encounter Jesus Christ, be changed by Him and return home a different person. This feast challenges us to consider the attitude with which we approach Mass each Sunday. Do we come to church as a tourist or a pilgrim?

Coming to Church is all about encountering the living God in the person of Jesus Christ. Today we heard the memorable story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. Here’s a Bible skill testing question for you: at what point in Jesus’ ministry did He cleanse the Temple? In the beginning or at the end? Trick question! The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) show Jesus cleansing the Temple at the end of His ministry, presenting it as an event leading directly to His arrest. In the gospel of John, which we heard today, Jesus cleanses the Temple at the beginning of His ministry. John does this to teach a lesson. In the Old Testament we discover that the Jewish people believed that certain physical locations were privileged places to encounter the living God. After the Exodus, as they travelled through the desert, the tent of meeting, or the tabernacle, was the place where God dwelt in a special way in the midst of His people. Later, when they settled in the land of Israel, the Temple was built to be the place of God’s presence. The Temple was THE place to encounter God. It was His home. When Jesus purifies the Temple in the gospel of John He is doing more than purifying the worship of the people that had been corrupted by greed. Jesus replaces the Temple. No longer in God to be encountered in a place but in a person. The living God is now present and dwelling in the midst of His people in the person of Jesus Christ. When we come to Church, we come to meet Him.

At Church we personally encounter Jesus in different ways. Maybe you have heard someone say something like this, “I don’t need to go to Mass or Church. I can pray and get close to God just fine when I  _________ (answers vary, ex: walk through a park)” It is true that we can encounter God just about anywhere, especially in nature. When we go to Church, however, we encounter Him in an incomparable way. Lets look at three ways we encounter Jesus at Church. First, we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is really, truly, fully Jesus. During Mass we meet Jesus in a personal way in the Eucharist. He is as real and present to us as we are to one another now. Secondly, we encounter Jesus in His Word. Whenever the Scriptures are read, especially the gospels, it is Jesus who speaks personally to each one of us.  When we hear the readings at Mass, we can all be struck by different words or phrases that speak to where we are in our lives. The Bible is not a document with no meaning for us today. It is alive and active! Thirdly, at Mass we encounter Jesus in one another. We are the Body of Christ. Mass is not merely a private exercise between you and God. We come together as a community to worship Jesus and to encounter Him in one another. The Eucharist, the Scriptures and the community - three ways we encounter Jesus personally that you won’t find during a walk through the park!

Going to Church should change us. Whenever we leave here, we should leave transformed so that we become more and more the presence of Jesus to those we encounter. Remember the two categories of people visiting the Basilica of St. John Lateran: tourists and pilgrims. Sometimes we go to Mass as tourists. We passively observe what is happening, hoping it finishes as fast as possible. Our hearts are not open with a desire to encounter Jesus. When we come to Mass as a tourist, the experience will not change us. It should come as no surprise that we will get in arguments the moment we leave the Church and there is a traffic jam in the parking lot! What a difference it makes when we come to Mass as a pilgrim, with a heart full of a desire to encounter Jesus. Pilgrims participate fully in the Mass with devotion even though they may become distracted at times. They speak with God during Mass, bringing to Him their hopes and fears. They remind themselves of the incredible gift of Jesus in the Eucharist. They ask for His help in the coming week. Pilgrims leave Mass transformed, receiving in some way Jesus’ love and mercy. As pilgrims leave the Church, they are for others a presence of Christ’s goodness in the world, fulfilling Ezekiel’s image we find in the first reading of living waters flowing out of the Temple into the world. Because of their encounter with Jesus, pilgrims leave the Church as what St. Paul calls a “living Temple”. They become a person through whom others can encounter the living God.

Being a tourist is great in certain circumstance. Mass, however, is no place for tourists. Most of us attend Mass at least once a week. Is this experience a personal encounter with Jesus that transforms us to become more like Him? Today let us recommit ourselves to being pilgrims - rather than tourists - whenever we go to Church.