There is an old Jewish proverb which says, ‘Ten parts of beauty gave God to mankind; nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder. Ten parts of sorrow gave God to mankind; nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.’ Although the proverb may be a slight exaggeration, it does make the point that beauty and sorrow are profoundly intermingled in the story of Jerusalem. Perhaps some of you have been to the city: I went, once, back in 1978. One of my most potent memories is walking down the Mt. of Olives, to the Church of Dominus Flevit, (which translates as ‘The Lord wept’), traditionally the route Jesus himself took on the first Palm Sunday, and from where he shed tears over the city. Shaped like a tear drop, it was already in the process of construction when someone had the inspiration – quite daring, architecturally, for the 1950s – to situate it facing westwards, and then to leave the window behind the altar to be filled with plain glass and the outline of a chalice wrought in metal. It is a supremely appropriate place, even today, to stand and weep with Jesus over Jerusalem, not least because the city can be regarded as symbolic of all our failures as human beings to live peaceably with one another. ‘We have wounded your love and marred your image in us.’
Without a doubt the second and dominant part of the city’s name, ‘salem’, has links to the word ‘shalom’, which means ‘peace’. The root meaning of the word, shalem, denotes completeness, wholeness and soundness. Hence the connection between Jerusalem and peace, but for Jesus, for Luke, and for us, it is a tragic irony that the city called and named to be a vision of peace has so often become a theatre of war.
On Palm Sunday, the disciples cried out ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.’ It is Luke alone who incorporates the word ‘Peace’ into the acclamation of Jesus by the crowd. The same word comes again only a couple of verses later, as Jesus agonises over the fate of the beloved city. ‘If only you had recognised on this day the things that make for peace.’ The words of praise shouted out by the disciples ‘Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven’ are a surprising echo of another chorus which was sung much earlier in Luke’s story. For on the night of Jesus’ birth, he tells us, a heavenly choir also sang of peace – ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.’ Notice the similarity of phrase, but also the important difference. For while the angels had sung of peace on earth, the disciples sing of peace in heaven. The followers of Jesus have historically perhaps focused too much on ‘peace in heaven’, which isn’t really our business, and not enough on hearing the angels’ song and striving for peace on earth, which most certainly is our business. All too often, people have been sucked into the vortex of human anger, hatred and hostility, of which Jerusalem, throughout its history, has so often seemed to be the sign.
One of the most painful – and dangerous – ways in which we can misunderstand and reject love is by being misled by its substitute – that sense of fierce possession of which Jerusalem itself has so often been the recipient, and of which Jerusalem’s people have often been guilty. Jerusalem is indeed the place where God is crucified by the desires and aspirations and passionately held beliefs of men and women. Few things can be as dangerous as religion, or at least religion which has somehow got distorted. But the Scriptures also present us with a vision of Jerusalem as the place to which the nations shall come and find healing. They also use Jerusalem as a metaphor for a new world in which the former things have passed away and a new kind of city is born.
Jerusalem can be seen, I think, as a sacrament of what it means to be human. By that I mean that Jerusalem shows up visibly and physically the best and the worst of the human condition. On the one hand, it is a visible symbol of our longing, our highest and best motives and desires, our love of beauty and our desire to worship God. But it is also a powerful reminder of how this ‘best’ can go so tragically wrong – precisely because we find it so difficult to love without also seeking to possess. We so often want God on our own terms, housed in our own city, even our own building, from which we may exclude all those who do not see things quite as we do. For the Christian, this means a recognition that the Church is not just for me, somewhere I go to reinforce my own prejudices, to create my own comfort zone, to set my own agenda, to set up my
own trading tables. Those tables are now overturned, as they were by Jesus in the Temple. For the vision of the city is an inclusive one, in which all can come together in peace, and discover within its walls mutual respect, tolerance and acceptance of difference.
Jerusalem is the place where this conundrum is squeezed into sharp focus. Yet there is a mysterious way in which Jerusalem does not simply reveal these realities about the human condition, but also challenges us at the same time to address them – to become the human beings God created us to be, in God’s image and likeness, as God’s partners in the creation and repairing of our world. And then perhaps one day the New Jerusalem will stand a chance of emerging, sorrow and sighing will cease, and the divine image will be seen in our humanity, as it was seen in the humanity of Jesus. So – ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee.’