O Jerusalem: sermon on the ninth Sunday after Pentecost

“If thou also hadst known the things that are to thy peace”

The events reported in this gospel occurred on Palm Sunday. A very great multitude of people are welcoming our Lord into Jerusalem with joy, praising God and waving palm branches. But He Himself, as He descended the Mount of Olives, “seeing the city, wept over it”. It is one of only two occasions where the evangelists speak to us of the tears of Christ; the other was when He came to the tomb of His friend Lazarus. These two events show us how He is fully human. Jesus, the Word made flesh, is as far from insensibility as He is from sentimentality.

These two sorrows, over the death of Lazarus and over Jerusalem, are, it seems to me, at once human and divine. What do I mean by this? He grieves over Lazarus as a man does for a dear friend, for example, as David once lamented over Jonathan. This is the human aspect of that sorrow. But does He not also grieve over Lazarus as the Creator over His creature? In the beginning, the Lord made man so glorious and happy, and placed him in paradise. And here he is now: a corpse in a cave.

Likewise, His sorrow over Jerusalem is both human and divine. Jesus foresees that in one generation after His death and resurrection, the Jews will attempt a rebellion against the Romans that will be as calamitous as it is rash. Vast numbers of them will die in appalling conditions during a protracted siege, and finally the temple itself will be burned to the ground. This happened in the middle of summer in the year 70, which is why the Church reads this gospel at this time of year. Foreseeing all this by His prophetic science, our Saviour grieves for the capital city of His people, as any of us would if the final ruin of our country were revealed to us. For patriotism is a part of the virtue of justice, and therefore Christ possessed it, and to the highest degree.

Yet this sorrow experienced by Jesus has also another source. It does not belong to him only insofar as He too is a son of Jacob, but also because He is the Son of the eternal Father, and therefore the God who made the covenant with Jacob. Many centuries before, He chose the Jews, the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, to be His people. He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand, gave them the Law through Moses and the promised land through Joshua. He set them apart from all the peoples of the world, so that their patriotism itself might make them zealous for the honour of God, and so they would be ready to welcome Him when He came among them as man. And He gave them Jerusalem to be, as its name suggests, a city of peace, an image of heaven, and the place on earth where His glory would abide.

And now, after so many centuries, so many prophets and miracles, He foresees how it will all end. He had come to His own and His own had rejected Him; that is to say, the rulers of the people did not want to yield their authority to that of their own Messias. As a result, God withdrew His protecting hand from the city, and in forty years, the great temple, the pride and joy of the Jews of the whole world, will be a pile of ashes, never to be rebuilt, and the people themselves led into slavery. This is why, although our Lord can weep only in His human nature, it is as if He weeps as God also. 

“How often would I have gathered together thy children, O Jerusalem, as a hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not.”

I said that He foresees how it will all end. But what He foresees is the end of the temple and of the old covenant. It is not the end of the Jews themselves, His own people according to the flesh. They will be preserved, by a kind of miracle of divine providence, without a homeland and without an army for 19 centuries. The First Vatican Council tells us that the Church herself, by her continued existence and fruitfulness, witnesses to her own divine mission. But in another sense, the continued existence of the Jewish people, in a way that is humanly inexplicable, bears witness to their original election and to the truth of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ Himself foretold this survival of His people across the ages at the same time as He foretold the destruction of the temple: 

“They shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captives into all nations; and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the time of the nations is fulfilled.”

Before these mysterious prophecies and their fulfilment, every Christian should surely be moved to prayer for this people. We should be moved to prayer not only by compassion for their many sufferings across the centuries but also and especially by gratitude. St Paul tells us that the Gentiles are like a branch from a wild olive tree, grafted onto a domesticated tree. Not only was our Lord Jewish according to the flesh, but so were our Lady, the apostles and all the first Christians. The Scriptures from which they quoted were Jewish, and to this day, we who are religious spend a good deal of time each day in reciting or singing the greatest works of Jewish poetry, the Psalms. In that sense, whenever a person of Jewish origin is baptised and enters the Catholic Church, he is coming into his own, like the prodigal son returning to his father. 

How sad, therefore, that in our day, when many old prejudices have been broken down and Jews, in greater numbers than ever before, have started to recognise Jesus of Nazareth as the Messias of Israel, we hear voices within the Church who would dissuade them from conversion. It is a new error, that did not exist in past times: the error which says that Jews do not need Christianity, but that they are saved by believing in the old covenant. It has rightly been called the most anti-semitic of errors, since it seeks to keep the Jewish people away from their Saviour, and all the sacraments of eternal life which He has brought to earth. Yet it is not an uncommon error: I have found it even among religious whose congregation was founded in order to pray for the conversion of this people to Christ.

Of course, there are many good intentions for which to pray: that is one advantage of living in difficult times, we need never be short of words when we address the good God. But I’d like to invite all of you to have as one of your intentions of prayer the conversion of this people, dear to God, as St Paul says, for the sake of their forefathers.