JERUSALEM: HOLINESS TO STRIVE FOR* By Carole Monica C. Burnett
By Carole Monica C. Burnett
*Excerpted from Saliba Sarsar, ed. What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections. North Bethesda, MD: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Incorporated, 2018.
** Dr. Carole Monica C. Burnett serves on the Board of Directors of the Jerusalem Peace Institute. She is the Advocacy Outreach Coordinator at the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) and the co-Chair of the HCEF Research and Publication Committee. She is the editor of the Fathers of the Church series, an expanding collection of early Christian texts translated from Greek, Latin, and Syriac, published by the Catholic University of America Press. Burnett is co-editor of What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections. She has retired from teaching Church History at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, as well as Greek and Latin at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
There it was, the original “city on a hill” – not just one of many legendary cities, but the geographic center of the Biblical narratives that have shaped my life as a Christian. I took my first look at the Old City of Jerusalem after thirty-six hours of sleep deprivation due to a postponed flight, and yet I could not close my eyes for several more hours as I gazed again and again across the moonlit Valley of Hinnom from my window at St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse. Although I had always known that the events of salvation history, through which God revealed Himself to humanity, had taken place in actual physical locations – not in some fictional, fairy-tale landscape – nevertheless it was an indescribable thrill to find myself transplanted to the foremost of those locations, the same rocky ground on which Jesus taught, healed, sacrificed Himself, and rose again, “trampling down death by death,” as we sing in the Orthodox Church.
Mine is of course a common reaction among first-time pilgrims. Religious awe and delight are to be expected when a Christian first encounters “the fifth Gospel,” as the Holy Land is sometimes called. In the course of my return visits, however, I became aware of two pitfalls to which lovers of the Bible can be vulnerable. Both are fueled by romanticism.
The one that affected me resulted from the hunger to feast my eyes on the very same sights that Jesus had looked upon, and, before him, King David and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Not only was the Western Wall at the Temple Mount (or Haram esh-Sharif) a tangible connection with Biblical times, but Hezekiah’s Tunnel brought to life the story of the Assyrian siege against the city seven hundred years before Christ. Sunrise over the Mount of Olives was an experience that I could share with prophets and apostles in my imagination across the centuries.
Before long, however, the pitfall of disillusionment descended on me. Much of what I saw was a proliferation of churches and shrines adorned with oil lamps, mosaics, and stained glass, and swarming with pilgrims and tourists. The terrain seemed to have lost its resemblance to the environment in which the people of the Bible had walked. As a result, I developed a feeling of alienation from the holy sites, cynically regarding them merely as tools of the tourist industry. Such was the consequence of religious thrill-seeking.
Eventually I understood that my desire to journey backward in time to a pristine Biblical landscape was silly and futile. After all, our knowledge of the Biblical setting is incomplete: archaeologists are still discovering ever more structures that were erected by the inhabitants and conquerors of the Holy Land throughout history, and therefore the horizon that met the eyes of Jesus may not have been as I had envisioned it. Moreover, the ornate shrines and churches built in post-Biblical times are powerful expressions of passionate devotion, the prime example, of course, being St. Helena, the matriarch of the Christian architectural legacy in the Holy Land. By surrendering myself to their beauty, I could participate in the ancient traditions witnessed by the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria and those who followed her. I could join my prayers to the continuous chorus of voices raised to heaven by pilgrims throughout the millennia. Standing on the site of the Holy Sepulchre while praying the Trisagion Prayer (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” which dates from the fifth century or even earlier) cemented my unity with generations upon generations of Christians.
The other major pitfall is one from which I stand aloof because I grieve over its effects. It is the romantic desire to re-enact the narratives of the Old Testament, specifically the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings, in order to re-create the nationalist glory of the kingdom of Judah prior to the Babylonian Exile, thereby establishing the supremacy of one particular ethnic group in the land. Some extremists, both Jewish and Christian, even aspire to demolish existing structures to construct a Fourth Temple in Jerusalem, complete with animal sacrifices. Such religious fantasies have propelled or condoned the grave abuses inflicted on the Palestinian people. I have seen firsthand the results of rampant disregard for human rights, such as hours of checkpoint delays, arrests and imprisonment without any legal charge, and land confiscation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The slogan “Death to Arabs,” scrawled on Jerusalem walls, has defaced the city. Such hate speech and violations of human rights have been bolstered by religious imaginations that have run amok.
Rejecting both of these two varieties of wishful thinking, I have chosen to focus not on recapturing the past, but on the way forward for Jerusalem. How can this venerable city fulfill its potential to become a place of “prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), a reflection of God’s will for humanity, and a haven of safety not only for survivors of European persecutions (though certainly to include these children of God), but also for everyone? Here in the United States we often discuss the challenge of diversity in our society, yet in the Holy Land that challenge is far greater – formidable, in fact. Competing claims on real estate, feelings of victimhood, and notions of ethnic or religious superiority exacerbate the usual tensions that arise from drastic differences between diverse groups living in close proximity. These obstacles are daunting indeed. Recalling that Jesus wept over Jerusalem – lamenting, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you,” and “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes” (Luke 13:34 and 19:42, RSV) – we might be inclined to despair of this city, seemingly so unholy at times.
God has His own plans for Al Quds, the Holy City, which are revealed in the striking descriptions of the New Jerusalem in the New Testament Book of Revelation and in the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah. Revelation 21 describes a city where the love of God illuminates the streets and dwellings:
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it . . . (Rev 21:22-24, RSV)
In Isaiah 65 the Lord speaks:
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and be glad in my people;
No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
and the cry of distress.
. . .
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
(Isa 65:19, 25, RSV)
Certainly these texts impart an impossible ideal, a utopian vision of perfect harmony and joy – a vision impossible for human nature even to approximate without God’s help. Merely taking the first step requires consciousness of human dependence on God in conjunction with persevering fortitude in the struggle to attain mutual understanding, respect, and appreciation amidst radical diversity. Unflagging awareness that “the other” has been created in God’s image, as well as a constant stream of prayer, must accompany nonviolent action and advocacy.
The struggle cannot be confined to the city of Jerusalem, or even to Palestine and Israel, or even to the Middle East. All people who worship the one God, the God of Abraham, must become involved. In the past, sincerely religious people have honored the Holy City in countless works of poetry, architecture, art, and music. The walls of Catholic churches display the Stations of the Cross, derived from Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa. Protestant hymnals contain numerous references to the Holy City. During Lent, Orthodox Christians regularly sing Psalm 137 (136 in the Orthodox Bible), which proclaims fidelity to the remembrance of Zion and to honoring Jerusalem above all other joys. Jews exclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The walls of many Muslim homes and businesses display photographs of the Dome of the Rock. All of these forms of veneration are to be cherished, but they are not ends to be pursued for their own sakes. Rather, they are means of inspiration for offering our service to the Lord. That is to say, meditations based on images and narratives of Jerusalem can lift our hearts to the Lord, but it is important to nurture an active connection to the Holy Land also. We can and should manifest our devotion by means of concrete action on behalf of people who are suffering the effects of the violence and forced homelessness that are desecrating the city.
What can Americans do? Plenty! In meetings of faith communities and civic organizations we can educate our fellow Americans about the causes of the tensions in the Holy City, presenting a holistic rather than a one-sided narrative. We can purchase fair-trade goods and invest preferentially in business enterprises undertaken by residents of the Holy Land, most especially by those who are excluded from the privileged class. Above all, we can and should continually draw the attention of our press and our government to the needs of the displaced and marginalized. Let us write with dogged persistence to government officials and newspaper editors and make telephone calls to Congressional offices when plans are announced for the construction of additional settlement units or when the news from the Holy Land has been reported or analyzed in a biased way in the media. Let us be watchdogs to ensure that those in positions of influence are not permitted to overlook Jerusalem.
And what about the sacred history of this city and its environs? Immersing ourselves in contemporary issues, while abstaining from zealous fantasies about recapturing past glories, is not a mandate to forget the past. On the contrary! It was here that King David danced jubilantly before the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with His people, which he had just retrieved from the Philistines. About five centuries later, Jeremiah spoke startling truths to the Jerusalem authorities, prophesying that God would establish a new covenant. After six centuries had passed, the Savior with His own blood initiated this New Covenant of invincible divine love for all humankind, and soon afterward the Holy Spirit descended upon a diverse multitude of visitors to Jerusalem who had come from many nations of the earth. The accounts of these and many other instances of God’s intimate involvement in human events belong to the personal history of every Christian and to the history of the world.
In this place, so holy and yet so unholy, the past is a source of hope for the future. God, who became incarnate and walked on earth – in this city – shall surely act again and again, and His will shall prevail through the inspired efforts of His servants. As Psalm 85 assures us,
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
(Psalm 85:10-11, RSV)
The faithfulness that will arise from the ground must come from human beings. Let us serve as God’s hands and feet on earth in the fulfillment of His holy will for His holy city.