Thursday, March 7, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Sacred Geography of Lent Part IV (In the City)

As I continue my meditation about the sacred geography of Lent, I wonder if the particular landscapes and cityscapes mentioned in the Gospels of Lent speak to the spiritual imagination of others as they do to me. I came across an encouraging essay that begins "In the history of Christian faith, landscape and spirituality are frequently intertwined." (Belden C. Lane, "Landscape and Spirituality.")

I know that such things as deserts and mountains are archetypes of the human psyche. They represent a symbolic constellation of experience, desire, emotion, stories and images hard to describe. Last week I found it instructive to think about encounters of Jesus, such as with the Samaritan Woman, that are "outside the city," as that would have been understood in Antiquity as a meeting on the margins with the marginal.

So what will the upcoming Sunday bring? Are we still following Jesus in the desert? This Sunday we find Jesus not outside the city this time, but in the city; and not just any city, but in Jerusalem. There he encounters a Blind Man and heals him after the man washed in the Pool of Siloam.
 
Jerusalem, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Jerusalem is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. It was the new capital of King David’s reign (c. 1002–970 BC); David’s son Solomon built the first Temple there. Jerusalem came to symbolize both the place of right worship of God with the ritual sacrifices in the Temple and as a place of pilgrimage for the People of Israel.

Jesus as a child made pilgrimage with his family to Jerusalem. Later he would teach there and be tried and condemned to death in Jerusalem. It was outside the city walls of Jerusalem that he would be crucified. So this city, holy to the Jews, also became holy to Christians. But for Christians, the significance of Jerusalem transcended the actual city which would be destroyed by the Roman army in 70 AD and then rebuilt later over time. For Christians, what is of greatest meaning is the Heavenly Jerusalem (also called the New Jerusalem) which at the Second Coming of Christ comes down from heaven, "as a bride adorned for her bridegroom." (Revelation 21:2)

Heavenly Jerusalem  1580
 Fresco in Annunciation Cathedral, Russia

In the ancient Church and also very prominently in the Medieval Church, especially among the monks, was this longing for this Heavenly Jerusalem, which the monastery or the Church on earth might be an anticipation of heaven.

I find this in my own spirituality and spiritual imagination as something very attractive. I remember when I was in the seminary and first read a classical work on Early and Medieval monasticism called The Love of Learning and The Desire for God by Dom Jean LeClerq.

LeClerq details one of the themes of the monastic culture which was this longing for heaven, focused on the Heavenly Jerusalem. This was reinforced by the daily prayers of the monks taken from the Psalms with their frequent reference to Jerusalem.

Over the years I, too, have come to long for that Heavenly Jerusalem. Our celebration of Mass is also a participation in what is called the Heavenly Liturgy of Christ with his angels and saints and the blessed of heaven. "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in [heaven:] the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims..." (Catechism #1090)

The interesting outcome of focusing upon and longing for the Heavenly Jerusalem is that it replaces any other place in this world with no place in this world. Or as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (13:14) says: "For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come." In other words, we are pilgrims or exiles in this world. Thus "biblical imagery of exile, wandering in the desert, and foreignness, as well as the concept of the heavenly Jerusalem adopted by Christianity from its infancy, prevailed in Christian literature..." (Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity. Bruria Bitton-Ashkelony, p. 111)

A perfect heavenly city of course contrasts with imperfect earthly cities. We may be pilgrims and exiles, but Catholics have always been solidly connected with specific places. Early Christianity was essentially an urban phenomenon. The New Testament letters were communiques with the Christians in particular cities, like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, etc. But cities have an ambivalent reputation in the Scriptures. Andrew Crook writes in an essay on the subject:

"Cities, like human beings, do not get a very good press in the Bible. Their origins were in sin, rebellion and violence, and they continued in this vein. They were concentrations of oppression, corruption and bloodshed, as well as paganism and immorality.
 
"However, as with individual humans, God's reaction to this was not one of anger but of compassion. It appears that he has a redemptive plan for urban life, which will only be completed with the unveiling of the new Jerusalem, but which will be foreshadowed by the work of his people in earthly cities." ("The City in the Bible: A Relational Perspective.")
 

So in the spiritual geography of this upcoming Sunday, I think about the challenge of living in the city. I have mentioned that there was a movement in the early Church where some Christian men and women fled the distractions and temptations of the city. This would develop into monasticism. Most of us, however, have to live in the city, negotiating those distractions and temptations, bringing the lessons of the desert into the city (such as prayer and fasting).

This Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that just as the Blind Man was healed in the city of Jerusalem, so we can meet Jesus in the city, wherever that city may be, as well. He is the Light of the world, and his Light is greater than the city lights.
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From an Anonymous Monk of the Benedictine Abbey of B├Ęze (early 12th century?): "Elevations on the Glories of Jerusalem" (quoted in Jean Leclercq OSB, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, ch 45).
 
The frequent recollection of the city of Jerusalem and of its King is to us a sweet consolation, a pleasing occasion for meditation and a necessary lightening of our heavy burden.
 
I shall say something briefly – and, I hope, usefully! – on the city of Jerusalem for its edification; and for the glory of the reign of its King I shall speak and I shall listen to what the Lord within me tells me of Himself and of His city...
 
May your soul leave this world, traverse the heavens themselves and pass beyond the stars until you reach God. Seeing Him in spirit and loving Him, may you breathe a gentle sigh and come to rest in Him…
 
The city of Jerusalem is built upon the heights. Its builder is God. There is but one foundation of this city: it is God.
 
There is but one founder: it is He, Himself, the All High, who has established it.
 
One is the life of all those who live in it, one is the light of those who see, one is the peace of those who rest, one is the bread which quenches the hunger of all; one is the spring whence all may drink, happy without end.
 
And all that is God Himself, Who is all in all: honor, glory, strength, abundance, peace and all good things. One alone is sufficient unto all.
 
This firm and stable city remains forever. Through the Father, it shines with a dazzling light;
through the Son, splendor of the Father, it rejoices, loves; through the Holy Spirit, the Love of the Father and the Son, subsisting, it changes; contemplating, it is enlightened; uniting, it rejoices. It is, it sees, it loves.
 
It is, because its strength is the power of the Father; it sees; because it shines with the wisdom of God; it loves, because its joy is in the goodness of God.
 
Blessed is this land which fears no adversity and which knows nothing but the joys of the full knowledge of God.
 
Now, each has his own garment; but in the eighth age, the armies of the blessed will bear a double palm. All will know. All words will be hushed and only hearts will speak.