Dominus flevit: the destruction of Jerusalem

by Roberto de Mattei

It is Palm Sunday. Jesus weeps on the Mount of Olives, where stands today the church of Dominus flevit — the place where “the Lord wept” (Lk 19:41). Before Him opens up not only the panorama of a city in celebration, whose tragic fate He knows, but also the equally dramatic picture of future ages, until the end of the world. Quae utilitas in sanguine meo? — “What profit is there in my blood?” (Ps 29:10). The thought that it will cost Him His sweat of blood in the Garden of Olives comes to His mind. The mystery of evil is before His eyes. Jerusalem will be destroyed not for its sins, but for its impenitence. Jesus, after His death and Resurrection, will offer the grace of repentance to His people, but He knows that this grace will be refused. Venient dies in te: et circumdabunt te inimici tui — “For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation” (Lk 19:43-44).

All this would take place thirty-seven years later, when the Apostles had begun to spread the Gospel to every corner of the earth, converting thousands of souls. But the hearts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and of their priests would still be closed and hardened.

The detailed account of these events is provided by Flavius Josephus (35–100 AD), a Jewish historian, impartial and balanced, who loved his people but describes their blindness in his work The Jewish War. In the year 67, the Roman general Vespasian arrived in Judea at the head of three legions, accompanied by his son Titus, to find it in revolt. Between 67 and 70, from Nero’s death to Vespasian’s accession to the throne, four emperors succeeded one another in Rome, while Jerusalem was in the grip of a spiral of hatred and violence due to the civil war that was tearing the city apart. 

Three rebel leaders were harassing the population: Eleazar ben Simon, leader of the Zealots, barricaded himself in the court of the Temple of Jerusalem and was expelled by John of Gischala, who, in turn, hunkered down in the Temple while Simon bar Giora, with his Sicarii and Idumeans, held the lower city and part of the upper city. “It would be impossible,” Flavius Josephus writes, “to recount their atrocities in detail but, to put it briefly, no other city ever endured such martyrdom, nor since the world began was there a generation more apt to do wrong”(Bellum Judaicum V, 10, 5).

Titus, to whom the task of conquering Jerusalem was handed upon his father’s accession, had defences built around it to prevent any access to food, while the battle between the factions turned the city into a conflagration, which devoured all the grain that could have served for survival. The most terrible of the scourges to strike the besieged was that of hunger, which, Josephus wrote, “is the greatest of all sufferings, and there is nothing it destroys more than respect: that which in other conditions is the object of consideration is instead treated with contempt when there is hunger. Thus wives tore food from the mouths of their husbands, children from the mouths of their fathers and, most distressing of all, mothers from the mouths of their children” (V, 10, 3).

The Legio X Fretensis (“Tenth Legion of the Strait”) made camp on the Mount of Olives, preparing to unleash its attack from the eastern part of the city. This was the legion — whose banner depicted a boar, an unclean animal in the Jewish religion — which would later assume the government of the subjugated Judea. The Romans managed to take the three walls one by one and to tear down the imposing towers that dominated the city. The furious final battle took place at the Temple. The melee was such that it was no longer possible to tell which side the fighters were on, being mixed together in a confined space. “Whoever was in front had to kill or be killed, as there was no way out” (VI, 1, 7). Once the Romans had finally broken into the city, the massacre was total. Jerusalem was destroyed “in a manner so radical that anyone who came to that place would never have believed that a city had stood there” (VII, 1, 1).

Flavius Josephus describes in minute detail the magnificence of the Temple, which the Jews had begun to rebuild after their return from the Babylonian captivity in 536 BC. It had nine gates all covered with gold and silver, while the gate outside the sanctuary was of Corinthian bronze and more valuable than those covered with silver and gold. “On the facade of the Temple nothing was lacking to astonish the mind or the senses; in fact, being covered all over with massive plates of gold, from the first moment of sunrise it was all dazzling with reflected brilliance, and anyone who tried to stare at it had to look away as from the sun’s rays” (V, 5, 6).

All this was consumed. Titus tried in vain to arrest the fury of the legions, but “against the will of Caesar, the Temple was destroyed by flames” (VI, 4, 7). While the Temple burned, the assailants indiscriminately exterminated all those who fell into their hands: laymen and priests, children and the elderly. “It seemed that the hill of the Temple was boiling up from its roots, swollen with fire in every part, and that nevertheless the blood was more copious than the fire and the dead more numerous than their killers” (VI, 5, 1).

The final Roman offensive had begun in the month of the Passover, when a great multitude of Jews thronged to the city. “It was as if the whole nation had been locked up in prison by fate, and war took hold of the city when it was overflowing with inhabitants. Thus it came about that the number of victims was higher than that of any extermination carried out by human or divine hand” (VI, 9, 4).

The fall of Jerusalem foreshadows not only the end of the world, but all the punishments humanity is destined to suffer for its sins. What provoked the divine justice even more than their sins was the people’s lack of repentance. For its impenitence, the fate of Jerusalem was not like that of Nineveh but that of Sodom.

In 362 the pagan emperor Julian planned to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, with the intention of refuting the prophecy of Jesus about its destruction, entrusting the task to Alypius of Antioch; but terrible earthquakes and flames which arose from the ruins terrified the workers and forced him to give up the enterprise, as the pagan Ammianus Marcellinus testifies:  “Frightening globes of fire that erupted near the foundations made that place inaccessible to the workers, who were sometimes burned by it. The fire drove everyone back with absolute obstinacy, so that the enterprise was abandoned” (Res Gestae XXIII, 1, 3).

Today the weeping of Our Lady is similar to that of Our Lord on the Mount of Olives. Domina flevet: Mary, from Heaven, weeps as she contemplates the historical horizon of our time. In 1917, in Fatima, she announced a great chastisement for humanity if it did not convert. Conversion requires repentance for one’s sins — individual and historical — and repentance must be followed by penance, as the angel exhorted three times in the vision of the Third Secret of Fatima. However, no political authority, not even a religious one, is uttering words of repentance or of penance. Will humanity, the Church, the nations suffer a punishment similar to that of Jerusalem?

The only certainty we have is that “in the end” the Immaculate Heart of Mary will triumph. It is she who has promised this and we trust in her, amid the ruins of a world which is beginning to collapse in the flames.