May 2021 has seen an intense escalation of strife and struggle in the Holy Land. There is no concrete sign of their abeyance. A perusal of ancient and biblical history shows a constant state of conflict in the Levant that goes on to this day. The city of Jerusalem, for example, continuously inhabited for 6000 years, has been marked by persistent conquest, destruction and rebuilding to the effect that systematic archaeological excavation is almost impossible because each reconstruction utilised the rubble of the prior destruction. Through millennia, whether by Israelites, Crusaders or Ottomans, just to name a few, lasting peace has remained elusive in the Holy Land. Twentieth-century solutions, including Mandatory Palestine after World War I and the State of Israel after World War II, have failed to bring concord. Twenty-first century attempts, even the ongoing efforts of the United Nations, are also failing miserably. But there is hope.
In Psalm 122.6, traditionally ascribed to King David, we are bid: ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they be secure who love you!’ The word ‘Jerusalem’, as used here, is laden with significance for us: it refers to the capital city itself, to the Temple and, by extension now that the Messiah has come, to the cosmos. Praying God to bring peace perforce lends itself to security. This is the sort of peace imagined in St Augustine of Hippo’s ‘tranquil order’ where peace is found in God and God’s ordering, or Baruch Spinoza’s concept of peace as not merely the absence of war, but ‘a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice’.
Psalm 122 is a ‘psalm of ascent’, that is a psalm associated with pilgrimage, with going up to Jerusalem and ascending the Temple Mount. It is likely that this Psalm was often on the lips of Jesus as he participated in the great festivals of the Temple, for instance as twelve-year old boy, when he went up to Jerusalem for Passover with his parents and remained in the Temple for three days among the teachers (Luke 2.41–52). Perhaps it was also on his lips at a later Passover when he ‘cleansed the Temple’ of those who would turn it into a ‘den of robbers’ (Matthew 21.12–17; Mark 11.15–19; Luke 19.45–48; John 2.13–16). Ultimately, it would be Jesus’ final ascent on the Cross that would bring ‘the peace of God, which passeth all understanding’ (Philippians 4.7) not only to the city, but to the whole of creation. Despite Jerusalem’s fraught history and the troubles of the day, that peace is yet palpable in the Holy Land as pious Christians and Jews recite Psalm 122 to this day within its walls.
We too should have Psalm 122, as well as a surfeit of prayers on our lips these days, for the peace of Jerusalem and for all who suffer persecution, discrimination and violence in the Holy Land. In so doing, we join with an untold number of women and men of good will, Christian and non-Christian alike, but especially with our fellow Anglicans in the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Just a fortnight or so ago, the Rt Revd Hosam Naoum was installed as its archbishop on Ascension Thursday (13 May 2021) in Jerusalem’s Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr. As the archbishop said in his sermon, ‘here in the city of the Resurrection, we must be people of the Resurrection always looking to God’s light, life and hope for us and for the whole world’.
Perhaps the most famous church in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. It houses, according to tradition, the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Empty Tomb. Its title, not unlike the structure of the church itself, has alternated since its erection in the fourth century with unremitting destruction, rebuilding and occupation, but the original title, still used by many Christian denominations, has never been forgotten: Church of the Resurrection. Except for brief closures during the Black Death in 1349 and the Covid-19 pandemic, the Church of the Resurrection has been open to pilgrims of all faiths and none. It remains open even now as violence encircles it once more because Jerusalem is, to be sure, the city of the Resurrection.
Jesus’ Resurrection is our hope, especially in today’s strife and struggle. The Holy Land continues to be riven with egregious violations of basic human rights and the slaughter of innocents, yet we know that ‘the Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all’ (Psalm 34.18–19). Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!