ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Holy City

For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.(Isaiah 2:3)

For almost 20 centuries devout Christians have gone on pilgrimage to venerate the sacred places in the Holy Land. To Jerusalem especially they have made their way to. visit the scenes associated with the life of Our Lord. There they worship, first, at Christendom’s most sacred shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which encloses the place of Christ’s crucifixion and of His empty tomb.

Not only to Christians, but to the Jews, of course, and to the followers of Mohammed, too, Jerusalem is the Holy City. For 3,000 years since David, the shepherd King, first wrested it from the pagan Jebusites, Jerusalem has been the center of religious pilgrimages.

Jerusalem, “the Citadel of Zion,” is for any true Jew the source and summit of racial and religious identity. Zion is God’s Holy Mountain, the site of His temple, and His dwelling place among them. The remnant of the Chosen People in Babylonian captivity sang in their sadness, “If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; may my tongue cleave to my jaws if I make not Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.” This ancient lament of the sacred psalm evokes an echo in the heart of any Jew.

Less well appreciated in the west, perhaps, is the intense religious significance Jerusalem holds also for the followers of Mohammed. It is the spot the Prophet originally designated to which his sons were to turn daily to pray. Next to Mecca it remains still the second most holy shrine of Islam.

Evidently, as Father John L. McKenzie, S.J., notes, Jerusalem is more than a city. It has become the symbol of the encounter of God with man, the source from which salvation radiates, and the final goal of our religious searching and longing. Yet, oddly, in Christ’s time the holy city was not two miles square, and in the era of the Judaic Kings even less. Before and since Jerusalem has been fought over, besieged, and pillaged by a succession of armies; Egyptians, Philistines, Arab nomads, Assyrians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Byzantines, Turks and Crusaders have battled for its possession. Even in our own day, it has been occupied by the British, Jordanians, and the modern Israelis. Twice Jerusalem was leveled and utterly destroyed first by Nebuchadnezzer, the Babylonian King, in 587 B.C.; he demolished Solomon’s temple, and carried off its inhabitants to exile. Then again in A.D. 70 the Romans under Titus devastated it once more, and the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it as Aelia Capitolina after expelling all Jews. Each time, though, Jerusalem has risen from its ashes to become again the focus of religious longing for the place of God’s presence.

Jerusalem has witnessed many regimes in 3,000 years. For less than 700 years it has known Jewish rule, and pagan sovereignty more than that; Christians have held the Holy Places for little more than 500 years, and Islam twice as long again.

Nothing remains today of the original temple, nor of the second temple rebuilt after the captivity in Babylon. Nothing now remains either of the magnificent third temple of Herod apart from a portion of its foundation that we know today as the “Wailing Wall.” This temple that Christ knew was the wonder of the ancient world as if heeding Isaiah’s command, “Put on your glorious garments, O Jerusalem, holy city.” (Is. 52:1). Even our Lord’s disciples marvelled at it, “Master, look, what wonderful stones and buildings.” (Mk. 13:1) . Alas, it was destroyed as Christ predicted; on its site now stands the Caliph Omar’s el-Aqsa Mosque, and the smaller one called, Dome of the Rock.

Providentially, as one account has it, the Emperor Hadrian preserved the location of Calvary and Christ’s sepulchre when he covered over the area. On it he erected pagan temples that lasted nearly 200 years. The conversion of Constantine the Great finally made possible the restoration of the sacred sites. The historian Eusebius, Bishop of Caeserea, jubilantly recorded this event as a “certain resemblance to the Savior’s own resurrection.” The great basilica Constantine had raised there was itself destroyed when Jerusalem was sacked by the King of Persia, in A.D. 614. The Persians carried off also the wood of the True Cross. After defeating the Persians 15 years later, the Byzantine Emperor, Heraclius, carried back the Holy Cross in triumph.

Many of the Christian shrines today date from the era of the Crusaders (A.D. 1099-1211). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, despite many additions and alterations remains basically the same since that time. The Basilica marks the location of Calvary, the Sepulchre, and the crypt of the Finding of the Cross.

The Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land have guarded all the sacred places; they restore and care for them while guiding pilgrims from all over the world. Some of the other shrines in Jerusalem include the location of the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place, the garden of Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the path Christ walked to His crucifixion, the Mount of Olives, the stone pavement some traditions state is the place where Christ confronted Pontius Pilate. Pilgrims usually visit, too, the temple area where Christ taught, and look out east over the Kedron brook to note the road from Jerusalem as it wends off to Jericho. Burial sites abound in the Kedron Valley long considered to be Jehoshaphat, the valley of decision, where God would come at last to judge the nations.

Long ago, the Prophet Joel declared, “Judah shall abide forever, and Jerusalem for all generations.” (Joel 4:20). The changes time has wrought do not diminish for the pious pilgrims the vivid realization that they are indeed tracing the steps of our Lord, His Mother, the Apostles and first disciples. This is the city Christ wept over because He foresaw its fate. “Not a stone shall be left upon a stone,” He said of the city in which he preached, suffered, and died for our salvation. Here, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel was first preached. “From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth,” as the Psalm says. (Ps. 50:2). To the holy city since Christ’s time have come – in addition to armies in battle array – a long, innumerable procession of saints, Kings, and reverent people to meditate on the mysteries of salvation, and to recall in its place of origin “the wonderful works of God.” Faith sees in the narrow streets of the Holy City the Jerusalem yet to come which is the final goal of our life’s short pilgrimage. “Jerusalem, our happy home, when shall we come to thee, when shall our sorrows have an end, thy joys when shall we see?”

F.C. Edward, editor, correspondent and frequent traveler in the Middle East records his impression of Jerusalem.

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