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In this Update we will look at Jerusalem from a Christian viewpoint. Learn about Jerusalem's deep roots in the Old Testament, why it's a place of pilgrimage, how it is linked with Jesus and why the city is symbolic of the human condition.

Catholic Update

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Biblical Jerusalem
City of Tears, City of Hope

by Donald Senior, C.P.

Jerusalem weaves its way through the Biblical story. It is mentioned frequently in our liturgy and is cited often in traditional hymns. I have had the pleasure and the privilege of going to Jerusalem many times in my life, studying and teaching there as well as leading groups of pilgrims to that holy city. There is something both magical and tragic about that special place. Jerusalem remains in the world’s consciousness not only as a touchpoint for pain and conflict, but also as an extremely important symbol for the Christian tradition, especially its focus on hope and resurrection. In this Update we will look at Jerusalem from a Christian viewpoint, but first, let us consider it more broadly.

This city, of course, is sacred to three great Abrahamic religions. It is sacred to Judaism, obviously, as its religious center and its capital under the monarchy—the royal city established by King David that for a time unified the country, both the north, Israel, and the south, Judea. It is also the place where the Temple was established. David brought the Ark there to augment his royal authority, and then under Solomon the Temple was built on the top of Mount Zion, the modest mountain that stands in the center of Jerusalem. This is the place where the liturgy of Israel would be concentrated, the place where the priesthood with its teaching and ordering function on behalf of Israel was established. Forever after, this city would be considered sacred in Judaism’s self-consciousness.

Jerusalem is very important for Islam, too. The Old and New Testaments are revered by Islam and many of their stories, including the focus on Jerusalem, adapted as part of their tradition. At the beginning of their history Muslims at prayer originally would orient themselves toward Jerusalem. Only later did they orient toward Mecca, a city closely associated with the life of Mohammed, yet Jerusalem would remain a sacred city embedded deep within their history. In the life of Mohammed, there is a very important incident where in a dream sequence, the Prophet is taken on a great steed to the city of Jerusalem and, in a mystical experience, foresees his ascent to God. On the top of the Temple Mount, there is presently the El Aksa mosque—which in Arabic means “the furthest place,” that is, the end point of his night journey, which commemorates this experience in Mohammed’s life. For this reason it is one of the three most sacred shrines for Islam and an important destination for pilgrimage.


Finally, Jerusalem was also obviously important for Christianity. Christianity adopts the history of Israel as its own history through the Old Testament. And, of course, Jesus was a Jew and was thoroughly formed in the spirit and history of his people, including a love for Jerusalem and its sacred Temple.

In Luke’s Gospel, for example, Jerusalem looms large. Right from the outset in the Infancy Narrative, Luke portrays Jesus as loving the Temple, as a place where he was presented by his parents and where he himself wanted to be, where his family could not get him to leave (see Lk 2:41-52). At the beginning of his ministry Jesus “sets his face for Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51) and the rest of the Gospel story in Luke is portrayed as a great journey to that city. At the completion of his mission, Jesus returns to this place where his life began, a place where his earthly life would end and his mission be fulfilled.

In Luke’s story as Jesus approaches Jerusalem and comes over the summit of the Mount of Olives, he weeps as he views the beauty of the city and its Temple yet realizes its sad fate (see Luke 19:41-44). Later Jesus will enter the Temple precinct itself, praying, teaching, but also purifying it in a prophetic spirit. Here, too, the events of Jesus’ passion begin to unfold as he is met with religious leaders’ hostility, leading ultimately to his arrest in Gethsemane (22:47-53). After being condemned Jesus is taken outside his beloved city to be crucified.

So for Christians, too, Jerusalem plays a pivotal role within salvation history. In Acts Luke portrays the Risen Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection and forming them into a community. From the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem Jesus would ascend to his Father and from the right hand of God send the Spirit to the apostles gathering in Jerusalem at Pentecost. From Jerusalem and through the power of the Spirit the life of that community would radiate out to the world. “Beginning from Jerusalem. . .(Lk 24:47) and “throughout Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) as Luke describes the dynamic outward movement of the early Christian mission at the end of the Gospel and the beginning of Acts.

Old Testament roots

This prominence of Jerusalem has deep roots in the Old Testament. Jerusalem was meant to be a center point between north and south. David meant it to be a political center as he consolidated his authority as king over all Israel, north and south. It was meant to be a religious center with the bringing there of the Ark and the building of the Temple.

Yet at the same time, Jerusalem remained a tenuous center of the united Israel, particularly after the reigns of David and Solomon. When you look at the history of Israel, only for a relatively brief time under David and Solomon was this city ever the capital of a united Israel. It was always like a dream unfulfilled, a dream of bringing together people of disparate tribes to form one united family of Israel, with Jerusalem as its heart. But that dream was always elusive. Isaiah 28:16, drawing on imagery from the creation story, thinks in symbolic terms of Jerusalem as the center of the world. In the creation story, first there were the raging waters, then God made a canopy of the sky to hold back the waters from above and established the land to hold the waters from below. Right in the center, the umbilical, the capstone, the plug that holds us all together is Jerusalem.

But history would demonstrate that it is a center that is tenuous, whose hopes for unity and peace remain fragile. Thus for the Bible, too, Jerusalem is symbolic of the human condition, filled with promise and hope but also mortal and capable of failure and tragedy despite the efforts of powerful monarchs. David wanted, in a sense, to capture the mobile God who had led Israel through the desert in the Ark and helped them achieve victory over their enemies.

David wanted to bolster his own political power with the presence of the God of Israel nearby, in effect to build God a house. However, the God of Israel could never be confined to human aspirations, however expansive or noble they might be. The Bible notes that the poles used to carry the Ark in its desert trek were visible sticking out through the Temple veil when the Ark was placed in the sanctuary. Some Jewish traditions speculated that the reason for this was to remind the people that God is a mobile God, and could not be confined to the Temple. The Temple, while sacred, was not yet the definitive fulfillment of God’s presence among the people.

Place of pilgrimage

Because of the Temple built on Mount Zion and the central role of Jerusalem, this city and its Temple would be a traditional place of pilgrimage for Judaism.

This notion of pilgrimage is very important within the religious experience of Judaism, something that spills over into Christianity and Islam.

The ascent to Jerusalem is high, 1600 feet above sea level. We can still read the beautiful psalms of ascent that the pilgrims would sing on their way to this city from all of the quarters of Israel and, later, from all over the Diaspora world (see, for example, Psalms 122-125). As they journeyed to this most special place their hearts were filled with longing and anticipated joy.

So the religious center, Jerusalem, began to absorb like a magnet the religious longing of the people of Israel. This is expressed in the great pilgrimage feasts such as Passover and Pentecost, festivals that would cause the population of the city to swell several times over.

Longing for Jerusalem as the gathering point of Israel and the center of its identity as a people becomes part of the most profound religious experience of Judaism. This notion of pilgrimage, with Jerusalem as its end point, reverberates with something else very deep within the biblical story. That is the notion of journey itself, the whole history of the people starting with Abraham’s journey into Israel, but more intensely with the experience of Exodus. The Hebrews come out of a place of slavery, and, with great difficulty and testing, crossed the wilderness and entered into the Promised Land.

In the symbolic language of the Bible, the end point of the journey is Jerusalem. Thus in the Bible you have an important dynamic, a movement from the desert and the wilderness to the city. Notice the difference from how we sometimes conceive of spirituality today. Often we can speak metaphorically of “desert experiences” as an opportunity to leave the distractions and corruptions of the “city” and to go to a place of purity and tranquility in the “desert.” But in the Bible the desert is not the object of the journey of faith but only a sojourn or respite, a refuge, a stopping place along the way. The true end point of the journey to the sacred is the “city.” In modern spirituality, we sometimes consider the city as a place of corruption. But, in fact, the Biblical movement sees the city as the end point of the story of salvation. That is the place where the human community is found with all of its longings and failures and where God ultimately dwells.

Thus in the canon of Scripture the final book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation, a book that ends with the rediscovery of Jerusalem, the heavenly city that comes down and takes its place in the earth once again (see Rev 21:1- 4).

Jerusalem for Jesus

This complicated set of symbols that defines Jerusalem in the Bible—longings for unity, peace, hope, yet also experiences of tragedy, failure and loss—formed part of the consciousness of Jesus himself as a faithful Jew. Jesus stood within this history. He loved and absorbed the Scriptures. No doubt when Jesus visited Jerusalem, all of this resonance must have risen up within him.

We see this reflected in the contours of the Gospel narratives. Jesus was a Galilean, but he had to bring his mission to the place that was the center point, the end point for all of human aspiration, as the Bible sees it. So Jesus goes up to Jerusalem.

Mark’s Gospel, probably the first to be set in writing, sets this pattern. The ministry of Jesus in Galilee is depicted in the first eight chapters of Mark’s Gospel. But by the end of Chapter 8, we hear Jesus predicting his Passion (Mk 8:31) and beginning his trek to that sacred and fateful city. The rest of the Gospel story will have its eye on that destination and Jesus will enter the city in poignant triumph in Chapter 11, with the final events of his ministry and the Passion itself taking up the rest of the Gospel narrative.

Of all of the Gospels, Luke develops most the themes of Jerusalem in telling the story of Jesus. Space does not allow us to cover the breadth of Luke’s treatment, but a few key passages illustrate how important Jerusalem is for understanding who Jesus is in this Gospel.

In Luke 19 the Gospel describes the end point of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his final pilgrimage that goes from Chapter 9 all the way to Chapter 19. In modern-day Jerusalem there is a little shrine of Dominus Flevit, Latin for “the Lord wept.” This beautiful shrine (cared for by the Franciscans) is on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount. And of course what it commemorates is Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem in Lk 19:41.

Even today as you approach Jerusalem from the east, coming up from the deep Jordan Valley, you go over the top of the brow of the Mount of Olives, and opening up before you on the other side of the Kidron Valley is Jerusalem. It is still a breathtaking sight. Before you is the beautiful Dome of the Rock, the sign of the Muslim presence, built over the Temple precincts of Herod’s great project.

What Jesus would have seen as he came over the brow of this hill was the Herodian Temple, one of the largest religious structures in the world at that time, the second-largest Temple precinct outside of Karnak (in modern-day Egypt) in existence. The Temple built by Herod the Great was a magnificent building, clad in gleaming limestone and gold trim, and surrounded by an expansive courtyard and graceful Greco-Roman porticos. For anyone who viewed it, it would have been an overwhelming sight, the largest and most magnificent human structure they had ever encountered.

When Jesus, a devout Jew and prophet, comes up over the Mount of Olives and sees this view, he begins to weep.

In Luke’s story this poignant scene is indicative of Jesus’ love for Jerusalem, the sacred city of his people, the scene of so much of its history. Yet it is also a place of failure and tragedy that ultimately will be the place of Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion. “He wept over it, saying, ‘If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you…They will not leave one stone upon another because you did not recognize the time of your visitation’” (Lk 19:41-44). Later Luke will describe Jesus entering into the Temple precincts, purifying the Temple and challenging the religious leaders.

We might ask, How many of us care enough about a place where we live that we would weep over it? Maybe we think of the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the terrible loss we experience over something familiar that is now destroyed. Jerusalem is a city over which those who loved it have had their hearts shattered. Luke presents Jesus as not a casual tourist, but someone who is so deeply in love with the city, its history and its people that he weeps when he looks on it and considers its troubled destiny.

Yet for Luke, Jerusalem is still the city that will become the city of the fulfillment of hopes and the place of the origin of the Christian mission. It will be the place where the early community bursts forth in healing. In the courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, Peter and John see the lame man by the gate called “beautiful” (Acts 3:1-10) and cure him in the name of the Risen Jesus. The Gospel evokes the beautiful text of Isaiah 35, as the man, now cured, begins to leap like a deer, overjoyed with his healing and new life.

Jerusalem as human symbol

In the Bible Jerusalem stands as a metaphor for the human condition as seen through the eyes of faith. All of the ups and downs, the pains and hopes of human history are painfully close to the surface in Jerusalem. But, closer to home, Jerusalem symbolizes the strange mixture that each of us is, of dreams and pain.

Jerusalem also is a symbol, within our Scriptures, of the city as a sacred place. Symbolically, the city is certainly a place where people converge, where the pistons of human culture are both creating and breaking down. It is the assembly of ordinary people—it is us—and the Scriptures do not try to wash their hands of this. They embrace the human condition, the city. Here the saving God of Israel is present and is intent on transforming the human family to fulfill its God-given destiny.

The reality of the city also reminds us that we are not a people who live in isolation but are called to live in community with each other. We cannot afford to think of ourselves in purely individualistic terms, as if we dwelled in some rarefied stillness where we can divest ourselves of all of the grubbiness and the awkwardness and all of the complexity of the human situation.

No, the city is where people gather, and because of that it is a sacred place. Once in a while we need a sojourn to the desert, to get away either metaphorically within our own heart or even physically. But where we’re called to be, where we are called to serve, is ultimately the “city,” that is, committed to building up the human community, to be responsible for each other as children of God and inhabitants of God’s earth. Without doubt, the human family is a messy community, one with compromises, turbulence and pain, but in the eyes of faith and in the vision of the Bible, one brimming with hopes.

In Christian history, Jerusalem has become a symbol of heaven, a symbol of life beyond death, to enter into the New Jerusalem. In the beautiful prayers said at the end of the funeral liturgy, the Commendation, we speak of entering into the heavenly Jerusalem, this symbol, again, is the final resting place, the final convergence, the final home where we are before God and there are no more tears.

Jerusalem today continues to be a city both of tears and of hope. We see three of the world’s principal religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—clashing there each seeking for meaningful presence. To each religion, this holy city is an image of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). For Christians, Jerusalem can remind us that our mission is to be responsible to the world with all of its limitations and threat.

The often-quoted and courageous words of the Second Vatican Council, from the opening of The Church in the Modern World, proclaim this same spirit: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women, who, united in Christ and guided by the holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all people.”

Father Donald Senior, a Passionist priest, is President of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. He has a doctorate in Scripture from Louvain, Belgium, and currently is a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. This article is adapted by the author and Catholic Update from a talk originally given at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.

Next: Acts of the Apostles (by Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.)


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