Since the days of King David, Jerusalem has been a city of destiny, the center of the world, and the hometown of every soul that yearns for the Kingdom of God. A beloved song from my Jesus People days ends with the words, “The highway to Your city runs through my heart”, and that city is Jerusalem. I am not the first or only person to think so. An epitaph inscribed on the humble grave of a Christian woman in fourth century Asia Minor reads, “Here sleeps the blessed Chione who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much”. The highway to Jerusalem evidently ran through her heart too.
Jerusalem (or Jebus, to give its older name) was strategically located, which is why David was so keen to conquer it and make it his capital. After he brought the Ark to the city, thereby insuring that all the twelve tribes would look to his city not only as the civil capital of the land, but also its spiritual center, the fortunes of Jerusalem were eternally tied to that of Israel, God’s chosen people. In a sense the fortunes of Israel and their spiritual condition were embodied in and reflected by Jerusalem, the city set on a hill. What happened to Jerusalem, happened to all Israel.
That meant, of course, that when Israel fell into hard-hearted apostasy and turned from Yahweh to worship idols, Jerusalem fell too. Thus the denunciation of Isaiah: “How the faithful city has become a prostitute, she that was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your wine diluted, your princes are rebels and companions of thieves” (Isaiah 1:21-22). In those terrible days of idolatry and faithlessness, Jerusalem was at the center of it all. Far from being a beacon of light, it was full of filth and darkness, and its hard heart was far from God.
This lamentable condition of apostasy characterized Israel in the days of Jesus also, which is why He applied to His generation of words Isaiah that uttered of old: “Hear and hear, but do not understand! See and see, but do not perceive! Make the heart of this people fat and their ears heavy and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9f, Mark 4:12). By the time of Christ, Israel had again departed from God—not turning to idols as before, but to worldliness and pride. They had exchanged their calling to be a light to the world for mere pride in being the Chosen People. St. John the Baptist warned them of their danger and called them back to God through repentance. But most of the people ultimately chose pride of ethnic heritage over humility and repentance.
Once again Jerusalem was the national mirror of Israel’s spiritual condition. Exulting in the privilege of being the city of the Temple and the object of God’s promised blessing and restoration, the city self-righteously drew in its skirts and wrapped itself in cold pride. How many times when Christ visited the city He wanted to gather its children to Himself the way a mother hen gathered her chicks, but they would have none of it (Matthew 23:37). Once again Jerusalem had become faithless, a prostitute, a lodging for murderers. She was the city that always killed its prophets and stoned those that God sent to her. Indeed, it was almost impossible that a true prophet would be killed in any other place than Jerusalem, the city that murdered the messengers of God (Luke 13:33).
Its proud impenitence sealed its doom. After rejecting Christ and persecuting His followers for a generation, the wrath of God descended upon it at last: in 70 A.D. the Romans came and laid siege to the city, and did not depart until it was utterly destroyed, with not one stone left upon another in its Temple. Christ foresaw its doom as He neared the city one final time, and wept over it (Luke 19:41).
But Christ’s disciples were the true Israel, and the divine promises for blessing and restoration were to be fulfilled in them. Thus the prophetic promise that the word of Yahweh would go out from Jerusalem into all the world was fulfilled when the apostles and their converts who went out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth bringing the Gospel to all men (Isaiah 2:3, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8). The Christians who worshipped in Jerusalem were the true Zion, and after Constantine brought peace to the Church in the fourth century, the Christians in Jerusalem made their city an international center of pilgrimage and light. God had promised that after the Messiah came He would beautify His sanctuary and make the place of His feet glorious (Isaiah 60:13), and the beautification of the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem (such as the Church of the Resurrection/ Holy Sepulchre) seemed to be the fulfillment of this promise. Or so many Christians then thought: one of the lessons for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross which in part commemorated the building of that church is the passage from Isaiah 60. The consecration and beautifying of the Church of the Resurrection seemed to Christians of the fourth century like ancient prophecy coming true before their eyes.
But, as Christians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land would discover soon enough, Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. In the seventh century the victorious Muslim armies invaded the Holy Land and occupied Jerusalem, beginning the long, slow, and steady decline of Christian fortunes there. A brief reprieve from Islamic overlordship by the Crusaders was not to last. Islam eventually covered all of the Christian East in spiritual darkness, and Constantinople finally fell to their armies into 1453.
What then of Jerusalem? Must the highway through our hearts now lead to another city? No: for the true Jerusalem is not found on earth, but in heaven, as St. Paul knew even before Jewish Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D. It is the Jerusalem which is above that is our mother, and it remains forever free (Galatians 4:26). Our ascent to Jerusalem does not lead us through Judean countryside to a hill in southern Palestine, but through this world to heaven. It is in heaven that we find the true city of the living God, the place of innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the first-born whose names are written in heaven (Hebrews 12:22-23). This Jerusalem is forever safe from earthly invasion, and we can ascend there whenever we wish through prayer and Eucharist.
The heavenly nature of Jerusalem means that we are heavenly too, for as said above, the condition of Jerusalem and of God’s people are forever linked. Like the heavenly Jerusalem, we too do not belong to this age. Through baptism we have died to this age, and our life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Jerusalem is now our hometown. The martyrs knew this, and when some of them were interrogated at their final trial, and asked their city of origin, they answered, “Jerusalem”. Our whole life in this age is a pilgrimage to the Holy City, and our death will be a homecoming. If we pray much and keep the faith, like Chione in the fourth century we too will find Jerusalem. For those of us who love Jesus, the highway to His city runs through our heart.