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People, Look East: Eyes on Jerusalem

“He set his face toward Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). This statement in Luke’s gospel is easy to overlook.

Found as it is in the chapter in which Luke recounts the Transfiguration, the healing of a possessed boy, a foretelling of the Lord’s Passion and the unending jockeying of the disciples for first place, it can easily get lost. It is also not until some 13 chapters afterward that Luke begins the Passion narrative with the Last Supper.

Yet this small, seemingly insignificant verse is pivotal to both the text and theology of Luke’s gospel. Some early Greek-speaking New Testament authors describe salvation in terms of katabasis, “descent,” and anabasis, “ascent.” This theology is most clearly expressed in the hymn in the Letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), where Christ, in the very nature of God, takes on humanity, suffers death on the cross and is exalted by God.

Ascent and descent are physical — Jesus “goes up to Jerusalem” and is “lifted up” on the cross (Jn 12:32) — and salvific: Jesus is “raised up” from the dead on Easter Sunday and later “ascends” to the Father. This is found in Luke where, before mentioning Jesus and Jerusalem, the evangelist writes that “as the time approached for his being ‘lifted up’ (analēmpsis),” referring to Christ on the cross, his rising from the dead and ascension into heaven and taking his place at the right hand of the Father.

In the pattern of the descent and ascent, Jesus has completed the descent and is now beginning his return — his “going up” to the Father. Although there is a lot more to follow after Luke writes that Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem,” the fulfillment of salvation is now entering its final stage.

During Lent, all Christians are “setting our face toward Jerusalem,” and in many ways. Liturgically, our focus becomes more honed during the observance of the Triduum, which commemorates the last days of Jesus’ life and the world-transforming events that took place in Jerusalem. But far more, we set our face toward Jerusalem not for a spectator event. Rather we, too, are caught in this great saving act of the lifting up of Christ as he promised: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself” (Jn 12:32).

May you have a blessed Holy Week.

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