Wednesday 21 February 2024


Flanders and Swann once pointed out that England doesn’t really have a national anthem of its own: God Save the King is for all the United Kingdom, and so England is left with a patriotic song about the capital city of another country — Parry’s Jerusalem. This hymn, which poses questions in its words that can all be answered ‘No’, speaks to us of the constant fascination with Jerusalem, with the Holy City, which God chose as his own. This fascination we see in other outlets of mankind’s God-given genius: for example, the beautiful hymn, which I should like at my funeral, Jerusalem the Golden and the other 1960s version, which I should not, popularised by the Israeli pop ballad singer Ofra Haza. There are books, thousands of them, of course, which tell of Jerusalem’s tortured history or otherwise introduce us to her glorious cuisine. Pilgrims today, as in the past, bear her very name tattooed on their bodies, and in many Jewish homes there is a plaque on the wall bearing her name or simply ‘Mizrah’ (east), as Muslim homes will have an image of the Al-aqsa mosque. She is the focus of the prayers of billions each day, and has been fought over since first she was thought of. Etymologists debate the origins of her name but we suppose that Jerusalem is called the ‘City of Peace’, which only heightens the terrible irony of her suffering.

If you have had the chance to go to Israel and to visit Jerusalem you will know that for a Christian it is an unparalleled experience. The first-time visitor never knows quite what to expect, and some are disappointed that their pilgrimage is not an expedition into time-travel. But for all the modern dual-carriageways, impossible bureaucracy, and millennia-old general chaos which inhabits everything, there is ever a sense of the proximity of the Incarnation. In the Old City, those streets that wind about and those tiny courtyards that beckon one into yet another site of God’s dwelling with mankind, all of it changes, fundamentally, how one hears the Gospel and reads it — because with Jerusalem one can see it. These stones upon which Christ walked, these places where his Apostles preached him, this mount where his blood was shed…the wonder and the privilege to be simply there is something that not even hordes of selfie-takers can obscure.

As Christians, Jerusalem is in our soul. We have always faced East to offer the Sacrifice of God to God and in the Mass our very posture positions us towards the East: to Eden and to Jerusalem, that our faces and hearts may be lifted up to God and to his City and thus to the hope of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Each day we utter the name of Jerusalem: in our psalms, hymns, and prayers. Our minds and hearts are transported there by the words of the prophets, the songs of David, and all our sacred history as it is recounted. Just a few months ago we found ourselves only just outside her limits as we knelt before the Christ-Child in Bethlehem and then Candlemas took us up to Jerusalem — one always goes up to Jerusalem just as one does to Oxford — to the Temple itself, and now in these weeks we will follow Our Lord through her alley-ways and porticoes, to witness there his miracles and to hear his preaching, to follow him then from Gethsemane to Calvary. And not long thereafter we shall wait at the Sepulchre from which will burst forth his victory, to be taken thence out of the Holy City of Jerusalem to every corner of the world.

During Lent, each Friday in our church at 5:30pm, we pray together the Stations of the Cross, tracing Christ’s journey to Calvary to shed his Blood for our redemption. This is the Via Dolorosa. The Franciscans bought back this devotion from Jerusalem so that all those who could not travel there could instead trace Our Lord’s journey in every Temple of God throughout the world. The journey to Jerusalem has rarely been easy and at this precise moment would be rather precarious; if we want to see those streets and follow the Cross through them we are probably better advised to do it on Google Street View for the moment. Far better of course to follow Our Lord in his own House, in his Church. The Stations are not a re-enactment; they are a prayer — lifting our mind and heart to the moving and bloody reality of the price God paid for us in love.

This Lent, as we follow his Via Dolorosa in our own churches, as we pray those psalms and hymns, and hear day after day of Jerusalem, we do well to pray for the people of that Holy City and Land that Christ wept over. And for ourselves too, that we may follow Christ this Lent in every mystery of his Passion, to contemplate his inexhaustible love continually poured out for us, and know at last the “sweet and blessed country, that eager hearts expect! In mercy, Jesus, bring us, to that dear land of rest”.