A quick exercise: close your eyes. What is the word that comes to mind first when I say the word, “Jerusalem”?
When I do this myself, it’s actually two words that come to mind: “violent” and “holy”.
Jesus says today in the Gospel, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jerusalem is the place he knows he is going to die. Herod is the fox; Jesus is the mother hen. Like most mothers, Jesus will not shirk his fate just because it is dangerous. He has a mission to do, and he will do it, no matter the cost.
But of course, this isn’t the first time that Jesus is preparing to go to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel—Luke is the gospel that says that Jesus and his family went to Jerusalem every year while he was growing up to celebrate the Passover; an occurrence so normal that they didn’t even notice when he stayed behind teaching and learning in the temple, and identifying the temple as “his father’s house.” Jerusalem is a place of learning and communing with God his father.
Holy and violent. And as true today as it was then.
The authors of The Last Week, the book we’re reading for Lent this year, note the incredible ambiguity of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus: Jerusalem is at once in the Hebrew Bible the ideal city: it’s the city developed by King David when Israel is gathering into it greatest strength—and it’s not just the political and military power that makes Davidic Jerusalem great, it is the justice that it is founded on. The world’s laws are not what rule Jerusalem—God’s laws are what rule Jerusalem. The widow and the orphan will be cared for in Jerusalem. It is the location of the Temple, the physical dwelling of God.
But it’s also the location of the breaking down of the law and temple worship; the place that prophet after prophet came to before the exile, preaching that it would be destroyed if the nobility and temple authorities did not start dealing in justice rather than exploiting the poor; the temple where Yahweh was not the only God being worshiped all the time; and where since the return the elites of Israel have had to compromise theologically and politically to varying degrees with foreign governments to remain in power up to the time of Jesus.
And remember that by the time Luke’s gospel was written, Jerusalem had already been destroyed. In the year 70, a rebellion against Rome culminated in the destruction of the temple and the razing of most of the city. When Christians in the first century heard this verse, Jerusalem was a word that was met immediately with lament and wistfulness. When they heard “See, your house is left to you,” they would have remembered the destruction of the temple. And they would have grieved.
William Byrd, one of my favorite composers, wrote a motet called Civitas Sancti, the Holy City, and the text—referring to the first destruction of Jerusalem goes like this:
Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion is wasted; is wasted and forlorn,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.
And it’s the word, “Jerusalem” that echoes down again and again, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem….” I’ve almost never heard anything so sad as that soprano line. How many tears have been shed in that city… in this city. In every city. It’s a lament for what might have been; for what is now… we don’t often speak in the language of lament today. We turn our sorrow into self-help. But we can stay in lament, too, and grieve: Jerusalem, Jerusalem
Jerusalem is both incredibly unique—it is that potent, fractured intersection of the three Abrahamic faiths—and a stand-in for our own cities and holy places. The choir’s anthem today, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” by the English composer Herbert Howells is one of his anthems from the series, “In a time of war,” written during World War II. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem… but also for London, and Coventry, and Dresden… Hiroshima and Auschwitz… and everywhere else in the succeeding eras.
I never saw the World Trade Center as a holy site while it was standing… but once it was destroyed my memories were of the life and vitality that passed through its doors every day. I wonder if in the time of Luke they felt that way after the destruction of Jerusalem. A city wounded by the destruction of its icon, bleeding out its holy blood on the shaken ground.
Christians are always seeking that City of God, from St. John the Divine in Revelation to St. Augustine in his treatise, The City of God. They envisioned heaven as a city—not a wilderness, and not fluffy clouds with angels in nightgowns. Heaven required people, food, trade, communication, public works… the wilderness, nature was the uncontrolled chaotic place where evil dwelled and which had to be kept at bay. You didn’t want to go to the wilderness (very different than today!) You wanted to be in the city, which was perceived as ordered and under divine control.
Theologians picked this up at the turn of the 20th Century with the Social Gospel movement—Walter Rauschenbusch and others began writing and believing that bringing about the Kingdom of God was something that required action now—not just belief in a heavenly city but work to make our own cities more just. Think of Jacob Riis, and Dorothy Day and people who fought to end child labor and unhygienic living conditions and extreme urban poverty. Those strains get picked up by Martin Luther King Jr and others in the Civil Rights movement and have helped transform some facets of our cities.
This rings true for me. I am an urban person. I know God dwells in suburbs and villages and the wilderness (and I love visiting them) but it is the city where I find God challenging me and viscerally present. Cities are places where people from so many cultures are thrown together; they have a vitality that make me think of what heaven must be like. They are holy. And violent. Cities can’t hide injustice… my first expeirence of living in a city, in New Haven was where I first got a real glimpse of poverty and social injustice. Where I learned that when I stepped off Yale’s campus onto Dixwell Avenue, I notice that the only storefronts that seemed to be open were funeral homes, churches, and pawn shops. The suburb where I grew up was designed to hide that. When you’re in a city people ask you for your money and your attention and your time because they need it and they are there. Cities are places of public assembly—for celebration, for sport, for protest. I love it all. Even in its frail and imperfect and unjust reality.
What would it take for us to work on building the City of God? A City of Peace—a city without violence, without oppression, based on justice, full of compassion. A city where people had enough to eat, places to live, meaningful work. A city that worshipped—a city that was humble enough to see its strengths as a gift and not ane entitlement? Can we imagine that? Jesus can. Jesus can imagine a Jerusalem that is so different than what it was—so different than what it is, which is why he is so devastated in today’s Gospel. Jesus can imagine a New York City so different than what it is.
There’s a wonderful hymn text about this… it’s at number 582 in your hymnals, but I’ll read it now. It’s a vision of the heavenly city connected to our own cities—and written at the time of the Social Gospel movement, which obviously influenced it:
O holy city, seen of John, where Christ the Lamb, doth reign,
within whose foursquare walls shall come no night nor need, nor pain,
and where the tears are wiped from eyes that shall not weep again!
O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain
in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain,
and bitter lips in blind despair cry “Christ hath died in vain!”
Give us, O God, the strength to build the city that hath stood
too long a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,
and where the sun that shineth is God’s grace for human good.
Already in the mind of God that city riseth fair:
lo, how its splendor challenges the souls that greatly dare—
yea, bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory there.
Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969)
Byrd's Civitas Sancti