It is a Holy City.
I’m still not sure how physical spaces can take on such a bold designation, but it is undeniable. You can feel it in the air and under your feet. There’s too much history here. It’s palpable.
Emerging from the tunnel carved through the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem opens up in a vast panorama to the left hand side of the bus. It is stunning. My excitement grows, there’s a heavier than normal beat in my chest. It is a thump that rarely quiets during our three days there.
I’m imagining the procession toward the temple, marching to Zion, singing psalms of ascent. Along with the centuries, the sound is muffled by the roar of modern day traffic. Still, I can almost hear their praise.
I’m imagining the procession toward the city, coming down off the Mount of Olives, Jesus on a donkey entering the Holy City. They wanted “a king, on a throne, full of power with a sword in his fist,” writes songwriter Andrew Peterson. “Hosanna,” they cried, and I can almost hear their desperation through the tour bus window. They got a king, full of power alright, but the steel of the sword pierced his flesh; it was not wielded by it.
I’m on a procession of my own. It is a modern procession, but a procession nonetheless. I’ve heard about this city since I was a boy. I studied it my entire childhood. I’ve got an undergraduate degree in Bible and a masters degree in theology. But I’m tired of hearing about it. I want to learn from it.
A week ago, almost, I landed forty-five minutes from here. But we went north from Tel Aviv to Netanya, then east to Nablus, then north to Tiberias, then south to the Jordan River and Jericho and the Dead Sea. Then we headed west, or more accurately, we headed up.
The slow climb from the lowest point on earth to the Holy City did not take terribly long. But we climbed to it just like every ancient worshiper before us. Up, up, and up some more. God is up here somewhere, they thought. His presence resides here.
My theology snaps me out of the nostalgia. God isn’t up there. Or at least He’s not only up there. His presence does not dwell in a city, or in a temple, or in any palace or place. His Spirit dwells in me. So maybe I’m not ascending to a Holy City.
Maybe I’m a Holy City ascending to a higher version of myself. Or a different version, at least.
Maybe this place I’ve longed to be is special not because of what happened here thousands of years ago, but what is happening here today. Because God’s Spirit is still working here, is it not? Through me, even, and through other brothers and sisters and people of peace.
I see a flag or a police car or a solider wearing a shoulder harness and I think of the ruins. This Holy City has been fought over more than any other city. It’s been destroyed, picked through, and reassembled. It’s special to everyone, and no one wants to share. It’s been stripped to rubble and rebuilt how many times?
The Roman General Titus, no relation, had his way with it in 70AD. It’s never been the same since.
But what if there are worse things than being destroyed? What if it is far worse to be divided?
The Old City is sectioned off in quarters — the Muslim Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Armenian Quarter. East Jerusalem is for the Palestinians, West Jerusalem for the Jews.
The Holy City is not even wholly a city, and it’s sad.
This anticipation beyond the light at the end of tunnel is swallowed up by the darkness of the reality that this is a city that has sung more songs of lament than it has songs of ascent. It’s lived a 9/11 for nearly it’s entire existence. God came to this city, first in a temple and then in flesh and bone. Each time the residents rejected him in one way or another.
The city has cried out ever since.
It’s enough to make this modern day procession grind to a dramatic and catastrophic halt. But then, the end of the story. John’s Revelation — it occurred hundreds of miles from here on an island far away. But even in isolation his vision was of this city. Not of an ascension, but of a descending to come. Not of division, but of unity. Not of a lack of presence, but a fullness of presence.
“I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new. Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been passed away, and the sea was gone, completely. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride on her wedding day, adorned for her husband and for His eyes only. 3 And I heard a great voice, coming from the throne.
A Voice: See, the home of God is with His people.
He will live among them;
They will be His people,
And God Himself will be with them.
4 The prophecies are fulfilled:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning no more, crying no more, pain no more,
For the first things have gone away.”
It reminded me that there will come a day when the anticipation of seeing Jerusalem will pale in comparison to the anticipation of seeing a New Jerusalem. Not one that a pair of human legs or a donkey or a tour bus will have to strain to ascend to, but one that will descend to us, once and for all.
We’ll be home. Tearless. Painless. Division-less. Boundary-less.
Not simply a Holy City.
But wholly a city.