A view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. (photo: Michael Healy)
Moonrise over the Mount of Olives seen from within the walled Old City. (photo: Donald Magnetti, S.J.)
From the Mount of Olives and to the west, the Old City of Jerusalem strikes a majestic pose. This view of the Holy City is a favorite of tourists and pilgrims. For them and for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, Jerusalem is sacred because its history touches the hearts of three kindred yet distinct sacred traditions.
Above the Kidron stream and acres of graveyards lies the crucible of history, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims faithfully remember places where the divine and the human meet, where heaven comes down to earth, where people reach for salvation. Within its ancient walls, domes and spires mark shrines, churches, mosques, synagogues. This place of prayer by definition is a place of hope, of longing for salvation, for deliverance from lifes oppression, for redemption. So, this view of Jerusalem has become an incomparable icon of humanitys search for its spiritual life.
It also encapsules the most tragic of human follies: searching for salvation while blind to spiritual kinship yet open to powers allure.
The golden Dome of the Rock dominates the view. Third holiest shrine of Islam, this mosque covers the earth from which Mohammed ascended on his night journey to Paradise and to which he returned to share his vision with all humanity. A few hundred yards behind it are the twin domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking Christendoms holiest shrine. There Jesus crucifixion and resurrection triumphed absolutely over temporal powers and their faith in death. His empty tomb testifies to the ultimate revelation and established a new covenant with all humanity.
The Dome of the Rock sits atop Mount Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, who fathered Jacob, whose descendents are called the children of Israel. Their descendant David brought the Hebrews Ark of the Covenant into this city. On this site Solomon and, later, Herod built their magnificent temples to the one God, Yahweh, I AM WHO AM.
All that remains of those holy temples lies on the far, western base of the Temple Mount. This remaining 3000-year-old lower wall of Solomons Temple tangibly links the Jewish faithful to that destroyed testament of their special covenant with their living God. To this place they come to pray while they await the Messiah and remember both the divine promise and the suffering that their hope enabled them to endure.
Today the panorama of the larger city also includes modern structures hospitals, schools, hotels, government buildings, business offices suggesting other hopes. Even television antennae reach up above the walled Old City from the homes of Jerusalemites wanting modern communications messages. Nonetheless, the past and its religious traditions dominate a persons view of the Old City from this distance on the Mount of Olives. As scripture reveals, behind this picture lie many layers of history and profound depths of spiritual heritage.
Between the walls of the Old City and the Mount of Olives are the graves. Tens of thousands of faith-filled Jews and Muslims from dozens of centuries have chosen a final resting place where they believed historys final judgment would come. This unremarkable ravine is their valley of decision:
I am going to gather all the nations and take them down to the Valley of Jehosaphat; there I intend to put them on trial for all they have done to Israel, my people and my heritage. For they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land among themselves (Joel 4:2).
One could only guess how many of those who come to Jerusalem make their deaths their primary goal. Certainly, though, throughout history a less perfect faith brought many others who were more concerned with goals requiring the taking of lives. Uncounted legions have fought and died for the privilege not so much to die here as to rule this city and control its holy places.
These dry, stoney hills have tasted centuries of blood, Yet, still, such parched ground must thirst insatiably, even for the drippings of human slaughter which follows pride and ambition. But the earth here does not spill the blood which regularly stains it.
Isaac was spared from being sacrificed at this place because of Abrahams faithfulness to Gods voice. This human sacrifice was not Gods wish. But such a reprieve was rarely enjoyed after the place held a city with people serving power.
People who spoke truth and urged fidelity to Gods words in the face of oppression had a more certain fate here. Jesus knew from history and Scripture that the city of his Fathers Temple was full of the political manipulation of truth. He came to Jerusalem foreseeing its brutal response to his message, even so certainly that on that occasion he pinpointed a tragic truth with a self-sacrificing comment.
He sent a message to Herod through some Pharisees who warned him of the execution awaiting him in Jerusalem: That fox could not scare him from his mission with the threat of death because it would not be right for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem (Luke 13:33). This city was so notoriously an object of power and oppression, Jesus implied, that a prophet would best meet death by speaking truth in the place so profoundly corrupted. Even his resurrection from their execution was not revelation enough to change the hearts of those faithful first to the tradition of violence, death, and destruction for this piece of earth.
In popular etymology the word Jerusalem is often interpreted to mean city of peace. In history the city never indicated it could mean this. Jerusalem probably has been fought over as much as any other place in the world and probably with more passion. The Bible chronicles the warfare, marked by cycles of hope and despair, faithfulness and infidelity, destruction and renewal. An apocalyptic vision of Jerusalem is the final chapter of Scripture.
Jerusalem has continually suffered violence. On the crossroads of civilizations and at the meeting point of East and West, this land inevitably fell on the routes of empire builders.
After David made the walled city of the Jebusites the center of monotheistic faith, a long succession of armed forces oppressed the Holy City. In 587 B.C., Babylonians destroyed it, including Solomons Temple, and exiled the Hebrews from their spiritual home. Eventually the Chosen People returned to endure again and again the oppression of temporal rulers. In 70 A.D., Roman legions further profaned Jerusalem by destroying Herods Temple and dispersing the people of faith.
After Christians and Muslims also found a spiritual home in Jerusalem, a different motive for conflict developed. Would-be guardians of religious tradition competed like children striving for their Fathers attention and acceptance except they were more brutal than children. To recover their Holy Land, European Christians crusaded against the Muslims who held and vigorously defended their Holy City. For centuries Jews of the Diaspora maintained hope of return to their center of faith, until armed Zionists finally made it possible when there seemed to be no other place in the world where they could have a home.
So, the many Christians, Muslims, and Jews who used the sword to create an exclusive Holy Land also expressed an imperfect fidelity to the same God. In their eagerness to secure Gods hand, they made the icon of salvation a land washed in blood. They built a city steeped in conflict and dominated by the political campaigns of states. But these builder-warriors have been unable to discover God-with-them. Such a tragic irony for faiths whose one God first took oppressed people to be the Chosen Ones!
We humans defeat ourselves in our search for salvation. No wonder Jesus wept over this sight from the Mount of Olives and admonished Jerusalem: How often I have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused! (Matthew 23:37). Much human effort has been spent to maintain our self-defeating folly and confusion.
Jerusalem marks a central focus in the web of humanity stretching back in history, across geography, and deeply into the personal, cultural, and religious consciousness of our species. Its spiritual heritage unites people of faith in the spirit of the one God.
Visionaries have seen the Holy City as a living icon of the historical and spiritual convenant between God and humanity. This new Jerusalem is a place of peace and harmony, of heavenly perfection come to earth. This crowning vision of the New Testament was revealed to John, who recorded it in the Book of Revelation as the ultimate Apocalypse:
I saw the holy city, and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice call from the throne, You see this city? Here God lives among men. He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone. (Revelation 21).
Such a place is not limited by history and geography. The new Jerusalem comes only by leaving behind the Old. In a search for salvation, fidelity only to bloodied stone is, at best, misguided faith. It perverts and masks the truly sacred. To reach the real holy city, the living children of Abraham must escape their jealous bondage to bloody stones; they must again return from Babylon.
The new Jerusalem is created only among people who celebrate the presence of God in the human city. In that glorious place all people of faith together worship their same God while respecting their separate traditions. Only then do humans rise to the occasion of their redemption and salvation.
For now we are left to contemplate a vista of the Old City of Jerusalem, a place linking all humanity:
So why is it so difficult to move in it toward the new Jerusalem as an international icon of peace and justice?
Who will have the courage to transform ones own heart and work to build that new city, which accepts all humanity so as to be worthy of God?
What nations will come to this place above Joels valley of decision to reunite Gods people, Gods heritage, and Gods land?
Human history and the God who entered it await our answers to these questions.
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East Magazine.