TheHOPE ~ התקווה
The New Vision 
for Israel & Zion


Father M.J. Dubois 29.10.2014 23:19
THE MEANING OF JERUSALEM FOR CHRISTIANS - Bible study - Israel - New Israel - Jerusalem

Comprehensive and sympathetic survey by Father Dubois of Christian positions on Jerusalem and the Jewish role.


M.J. Dubois


Before  relating to the main subject of our lecture. I would like to make three preliminary remarks. First: though I am supposed to speak about the meaning of Jerusalem for Christianity, I am in fact, a Catholic, and I shall therefore not speak in the name of all of Christianity. Among Christians there are many different positions and opinions about Jerusalem and, in Jerusalem itself, there are no less than 32 Christian denominations! Moreover, I am not here as a representative of the Vatican. I am simply a Christian living in Jerusalem as a citizen, and it is as such that I shall express my position - which is also the position of many Christian friends who are involved with Jerusalem.

Second: A French Catholic writer, Charles Peguy, related to mystics and politics in terms of their complementary and antagonistic elements. In this city, Jerusalem, these two dimensions are bound and connected in a unique way. There is an impact of history on theology and an influence of theology on history. So, speaking of Jerusalem, we shall necessarily oscillate between these two points of view.

My third remark relates to the complexity of Jerusalem even from the vantage point of the Catholic Church alone. If I had to explain the complexity of the political situation in the Middle East as a whole, I would take as an example the differences - and even the divisions, between the Christian Churches in Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, they are characterized by three dichotomies which are essentially one. The first dichotomy is between modernity and tradition; tradition in the worst sense of the word: the Churches of the Old City are paralyzed by the "status quo". Because of rules and treatises fixed for centuries, they are unable to change anything at the Holy Places. On the other hand, the Christians in West Jerusalem live as they would in Times Square, Whitechapel or Place Clichy in Paris. They are condemned, so to speak, to modernity, if they want to be in touch with the Jews who live in Israel.

The second dichotomy is that between the Churches whose theology is traditionally anti-Judaic, emphasizing the opposition and the rupture between Judaism and Christianity, and those whose members came here precisely in order to establish contact with Judaism, to live among the Jews and to learn from them elements of Jewish tradition which were forgotten through the centuries.

The third dichotomy - the most superficial yet the most explosive - is the one between the Churches whose members are Palestinians and those whose members are Israelis. It is an unavoidable, but painful, one. Only prayer and charity can overcome it. One can understand how difficult it is on the human and political level.

As a matter of fact, these three dichotomies are actually one. This fact must be borne in mind, if we are to understand the Christian outlook on Jerusalem. Even as Christians we are divided by two cultures, two mentalities, two different political approaches - according to two different citizenships.

I wanted to begin with these three remarks, because they seem to me very important in the consideration of our problem.

If I had to summarize in one word the richness and the ambiguity of the meaning of Jerusalem for Christians, I would use the word "sacramentality", which means, at the same time, both realism and spiritual significance. A sacrament is a sign, a symbol, of a sacred reality, with all the ambivalence and even the ambiguity - the two-fold value which comes from the different emphasis either on terrestrial consistency or on spiritual transparency. This is the reason for which we can observe in the Christian approach to Jerusalem a kind of oscillation between two ways of putting the finger either on worldly realism or on heavenly transcendence. Since there is in Jerusalem a permanent unity - between eternity and time - "ha'olam haba and ha'olam hazeh", terrestrial and celestial, historical and mystical - and because of the original ambivalence, this city is, at the same time, a sign of contradiction and a pole of unity for Christians.

To understand this paradox, I invite you to consider some of its phenomenological manifestations in history. First: What did Jerusalem mean for Jesus? We see in the Gospel that it was the centre of his life, because he was a Jew. All the greatest events of his life and especially the events most important for the Christian Faith - his passion, his death and his resurrection - took place in Jerusalem. The Holy City was for him both the place where dwells the Shekhinah, like for every Jew, and the place of his own mystery. Already as a child and later with his disciples he came faithfully to Jerusalem in pilgrimage. It was indeed the focus of his destiny.

We read in the Gospel that when he decided to go to Jerusalem to fulfill his purpose, his vocation, "He hardened his face toward Jerusalem." and we can understand his love for the city from his words (Luke 13:34-35): "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you refused! So be it. Your house will be left to i'ou. Yes, I promise you, you shall not see me till the time comes when You say: Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord." This shows in a rather tragic way his personal tenderness for Jerusalem.

But, at the same time, we can see that he expresses, in his own person, a radical transposition: He himself is the Temple: "Destroy this sanctuary and in three days f will raise it up ... But he was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body." (Jo. 2:19-21). More precisely, speaking to a woman near Shekhem, in Samaria, he explains to her that the Temple and the holy places of this earth are provisional, temporary, relative to another kind of presence: "Our father worshipped on this mountain (Mt. Gerizim), while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.  Jesus said: Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem... But the hour will come; in fact it is here already, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. That is the kind of worshippers the Father wants. God is spirit and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth." (Jo. 4, 21-22). In other words, the true temple, the true place for the encounter with God, is transcendent and internal; Jerusalem and the Temple are only the physical manifestation or the symbol of a higher and more spiritual reality.

We can observe this same permanent association between terrestrial reality and spiritual significance in the faith and behaviour of the early Christian community. For example, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that, immediately after the departure of Christ, Peter and John remained in Jerusalem and behaved as faithful Jews, going regularly to the Temple for prayer and worship. The model proposed by the Book of Acts as an example to all Christian communities is the early Church of Jerusalem. The first Council took place in Jerusalem. Even the life and writings of Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, show that Jerusalem was for him the pole of his faith, the centre of his ecclesiastical references. He went to Jerusalem to meet the "elders" and to receive a confirmation of his mission. On the very humble level of economic realities, he organized collections among Christians from Gentile origin in order to help "the brothers and sisters" who lived in Jerusalem. Thus, for the early Christian community, Jerusalem was of central importance.

Nevertheless, at the same time, we observe a kind of detachment and transposition about the meaning of Jerusalem for Christians. At the very moment of the fall of the city, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, the Christian community fled to Pella. This attitude was interpreted by the Jews as a lack of solidarity with the Jewish people. As a matter of fact, it meant that, from a terrestrial point of view, Jerusalem was no longer a national centre for the Christians. For Christians, as such, there is no homeland in this world. The entire earth has become the holy land. For Christianity Jerusalem remains a spiritual centre, the holy place par excellence, but this link with the city does not involve any terrestrial possession or national belonging.

After Constantin, when the Roman Empire became officially Christian, Jerusalem, with all its holy places, the Holy Sepulcher in particular, became a spiritual centre of devotion and pilgrimage.

It is rather easy to understand that, in such circumstances, the victory of Islam and the Moslem occupation of Jerusalem were felt and resented as a wound, an insult, a scandal. This helps us to understand the spiritual meaning of the Crusades. Even if the end of the whole adventure was the establishment of a Latin Kingdom in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land, the prime purpose of the Crusaders was not so much to conquer or to recover a country as to deliver the tomb of Christ from the hands of the Unfaithful. The noted specialist on the history of the Crusades, Professor Yehoshua Prawer of the Hebrew University, has explained in a very convincing way that the Crusaders were, so to speak, the first Zionists - but not Zionists of this earth: by re-conquering Jerusalem, the terrestrial Zion, they sought merits in order to enter the celestial one: Urbs Jerusalem beata, the city of Heaven!

In short, throughout history we can see that despite some aspects of Byzantine rule or of the Latin Kingdom, Jerusalem is not a political, or even a terrestrial, reality at all for Christians. To the Christian faith this city is, at the same time, both a holy place for the spiritual memory of the mystery of Salvation which took place in it, and a symbol of another transcendent and spiritual reality, the celestial Jerusalem, ultimately the sacrament of the kingdom of God, whose Christ is the Lord.

Thus, as we have seen, there is throughout history a kind of ambiguity for Christians about the meaning of Jerusalem as a holy place. It is a place, a territory, whose significance is holy for faith, devotion or pilgrimage. For a Christian, the Holy Sepulchre is the tomb of Christ, the place of his resurrection and, therefore, the historical centre of his faith. But, since this holy place had a geographic location, its recovery, inevitably and unfortunately, had to be accomplished through the conquest of a land by force and through the creation of a human political establishment. In other words, on the level of historical human behaviour, there is an inevitable tendency to consider Jerusalem as a terrestrial reality, with all the political consequences involved in such a situation.

The second thing I wish to stress is the process of spiritualization of the meaning of Jerusalem, which has resulted from the ambiguity, or the ambivalence, of "sacramentality". We have observed this oscillation between the two dimensions, or the two aspects, of Jerusalem according to different celestial or terrestrial, eternal or temporal, transcendent or immanent. For Christianity, beginning with Christ himself and the early Christian community, Jerusalem is no longer the centre of a nation of this world, a terrestrial homeland, because the Church is universal, extended to the whole "oikumene", including all nations, all races, all cultures, all civilizations. This means that Jerusalem is, above all, a spiritual reality. Thus, in the Book of Revelation, Jerusalem appears as a bride coming down from Heaven, as a city of Heaven (Apoc. c. 21). And in the first Epistle of Peter, the Church is a spiritual construction of which Christians are the living stones. In such a perspective Jerusalem is a new and heavenly city beyond space and time, the centre and the symbol of the kingdom of God in eternity.

This new significance of Jerusalem for Christianity is so evident and so fundamental that, during the Middle Ages, even at the time of the Crusades, the terrestrial pilgrimage to the Holy Land was considered vain and useless. According to this medieval conception, the true home of a Christian is the celestial Jerusalem. Such, for instance, was the reaction of Saint Bernard to people of Clairvaux on Citeaux who wanted to go as pilgrims to the tomb Christ. His argument was that, for a faithful Christian. Jerusalem is the monastery itself, or the interior home of the heart in which dwells the Divine essence of the Lord. Such was already the thought of many Church fathers, of Gregory of Nyssa. Jerome or Augustin: The Kingdom of God is inside our heart, and the only true pilgrimage should be an interior one: the only urgent itinerary is the road to holiness, whose goal is the meeting with God in the Jerusalem of the Heart.

We find a typical and beautiful manifestation of this spiritual meaning of the Christian liturgy for the dedication of churches. As a temple in which dwells the Divine presence, every church is a symbol, more precisely a sacrament, of the celestial Jerusalem, and also a symbol of the temple which is in every baptized. The liturgy of this feast includes all the terminology of the Bible which relates to the dedication of the temple or the sanctity  Jerusalem. “Urbs Sion Unica" (unique city of Zion) and "mansio mystica" (mystical home), “conondita caelo" (built in the Heaven), and prayers, antiphons and hymns are full of references to the Book of Revelations. The most beautiful example is surely the famous hymn of vespers:

Urbs Jerusalem beate                         Happy City of Jerusalem
… eta pacis visio                                 named vision of peace
ouse construitur in caelis                  
which is built in Heaven
vivis ex lapidibus                                 with living stones.
Plateae et muri ejus...                         Its squares and its walls are made
ex auro purissimo...                            of pure gold...


This poetic symbolism is magnificent: the city of Jerusalem is indeed the model of every church, but it refers, in the final analysis, to the celestial Zion. One must beware of suppressing the realistic existence of the symbol in order to preserve the transcendence of the meaning. This was too often the tendency of the Fathers of the Church: a tendency to a kind of Platonism, a Platonizing way of considering the signified reality without paying enough attention to the consistency of the symbol.

There are many examples of this dualistic way of thinking in Christian tradition: the contradictions between flesh and spirit, past and present, terrestrial and celestial, in which the emphasis on the second term is so strong that the first term disappears, or even becomes a pejorative reality. The mistake would be to stress so much the purely spiritual meaning of Jerusalem that one would come to forget that this city is also a city of this world, with a worldly and terrestrial life, a day-to-day history, and flesh and blood citizens. Here we touch the very root of the attitude of some Christians who, in the present day situation, fail to attach any terrestrial or existential value to the fact that Jewish identity and Jewish destiny are connected with the historical Jerusalem. In such an approach, Jerusalem retains its beautiful spiritual significance but, as a sacrament without matter, a Eucharist without bread and wine, a poem without reference.

A balanced conception of the relationship between place and history, between past and memory, could overcome such a danger. And that is my third remark. It could be said on this point that Christian pilgrims rediscover the role of spiritual memory in the approach to the Holy Places. To visit a site or a landscape of the Bible, or of the Gospel is an occasion for remembering, just like the custom of the Jewish people during the celebration of Passover: "Be'khol dor va'dor..." in every generation...". The recollection of the very night of the Exodus is a way of being present at its permanent actuality. In the same manner, a pilgrimage to the Holy Places of the Bible is an occasion to recollect, to remind, to re-present, to make present, through the memory of faith, the actuality of the deeds and events which took place there.

We could express this “sacramental” attitude by quoting a verse of te Book of Genesis “vaYiga Ya’aqov baMaqom” (28:11), “And Jacob touched the place”. You know whom Jacob met during this night and what is the significance of "Maqom" in Jewish tradition. Jacob got in touch with God: he touched God through the place. Such an expression could be applied to the pilgrimage in Jerusalem: to remind the pilgrim, on the spot, in the earthly framework of this city, of the reality of the presence of God for our faith.

My fourth remark concerns the most disconcerting paradox of Jerusalem, disconcerting especially for Christians: a paradox of unity and disunity, of identity and contradiction. It is unfortunately true that many Christians are shocked, and even scandalized, when they first visit the Holy Sepulcher. It is indeed paradoxical that, at the very place where Christ has brought unity and peace to the world through the mystery of his death and resurrection. Christians are themselves in a state of disunity and sometimes in a state of open conflict. What a contradiction!

There is another place in Jerusalem where this paradox is still more striking: the Cenaculum, on Mount Zion. This little XIVth century Gothic church was built to commemorate two decisive events which are at the very centre of the Chrisyian Faith: the Last Supper, during which Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist: and the Day of Pentecost - the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and to the early Christian community. At this site, which should be for the concrete memorial of the unity brought to the world by Christ and confirmed by the visit of the Holy Spirit, what do we see today? An empty church, in which official cult and prayer are forbidden because of the "status quo”, which was used for centuries as a mosque by Moslems under Turkish rule; and which is today supervised by the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs!

I had to explain to a group of cosmonauts, who came from the moon to spend a few minutes on our planet, how disunified our world is. I would bring them to the Cenaculum. This place is like an anti-sacrament of peace, a sign that harmony and unity don't exist between men who believe in the same unique God! the monotheisms appear at this place, which is for Christians the symbol of unity and peace, in a state of tension and disarray.

In spite of the pity of such a situation and of the scandal which it causes, we can nevertheless discover in it a positive significance. The divisions between churches at the Holy Sepulcher, and between men of good will at the Cenaculum, are a paradoxical sign of a common longing for unity and peace. These hopes and expectations are expressed, searched for and attempted through misunderstandings, confrontations and conflicts. But in the light of its internal vocation, as expressed in the Bible, Jerusalem appears as the paradoxical sacrament of common vocation to harmony and unity, beyond the failures and contradictions of human life in this world.

* * *

If for a Christian, Jerusalem is a sacrament which represents and announces the city of peace for which we are made and to which we are called, there is nevertheless a Christian outlook on the present-day situation.

The approach to the question of Jerusalem and the terms used to express it has changed during the past thirty years. In 1947-48, before the creation of the State of Israel, when the partition of the Holy Land and the status of Jerusalem were discussed at the United Nations, the Holy See adhered to the concept of "corpus separatum" - separated territory, and internationalization ­- territory ruled by international authority. The last speeches of Paul VI and the recent declarations of John Paul II no longer referred to "international-ization", but to "international guarantees". It would be difficult to define clearly what is meant by these words, but it is clear that, on the one hand, the Vatican has no political pretentions about Jerusalem as a secular city and, on the other, that it is concerned about the rights of the Arab citizens of Jerusalem. We should also remember that the Vatican has not recognized the State of Israel, not to, mention the reunification of Jerusalem under Israeli authority. The ultimate decision will no doubt depend on political developments in the entire area. <note: this situation has by now changed and the Vatican has recognized the State of Israel>

But, whatever the official position of the Vatican, it is equally important to note the different Christian opinions on Israel and Jerusalem, and to weigh their impact on the political situation. I shall mention only two extreme positions whose political consequences are, strangely enough, the same. On the right, there remain representatives of the traditional conservative position which continues to speak of deicide, which emphasizes the responsibility of Jews in the death of Christ and which links the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews, to their refusal to recognize Christ. In such a perspective, since the dispersion is the punishment for deicide, Jews have no right to return to the Holy Land, and especially to Jerusalem. Even though this position is not expressed either so brutally or so naively, it continues to exist in the minds of some traditional theologians.

At the other extreme, the so-called "Christian New Left", we can observe a very strange phenomenon, a kind of transformation of political positions to theological considerations. There are, at the present time, many young generous Christians who, in the name of their faith and their charity, are on the side of the poor. They seek to fight for justice and human rights; they are concerned about the destiny of undeveloped countries. Take, for example, the personality of Berrigan in America, and his impact on young generous people. Since they are socio-politically supportive of the poor, in the name of justice, they are politically supportive of the cause of the Palestinians. For this reason they are politically against Israel, but in the final analysis, they are theologically opposed to Jews and Judaism and, consequently, they deny the link between the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem. Strangely enough, at both extremes, there is a reluctance to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem.

This could explain the lack of objectivity and justice which has in recent years characterized the campaigns organized by different Christian movements against the "judaization" of Jerusalem, based on all kinds of arguments - even on the level of aesthetics and urbanism - pretending that the Jews were "disfiguring" or "desacralizing" the Holy City of Jerusalem!

Fortunately, this attitude is not common to all Christians. If we consider the concrete and living attitude of Christian people who come to Jerusalem, we discover that there is a new attitude, there are new reasons and motivations to come to Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, there is an increasing flow of pilgrims of a new kind. They come to Jerusalem because they have discovered the importance of this city in their understanding of the word of God the centrality of this city and its significance in the whole history of salvation. There are more and more people - scholars, clergymen, students - who come to Jerusalem to read the Bible on the spot, to rediscover the roots of their faith. We could summarize the process of this movement using the three words which express the pillars of Jewish identity: "Torah, Am, Aretz" - The Book, the People, and the Land. First: they come to Jerusalem to realize the link between the Book and the Land. Second: they come to take advantage of the Jewish approach to the Bible - the people and the Book. At the end of the process they become more aware of the link between the people and this city. They discover the centrality of Jerusalem for the Jews, in the name of their Christian faith.

This movement is in accordance with the invitation which has appeared in some recent Christian documents, especially of the Catholic Church. The declaration of the French bishops (1973) and the "Guidelines" published in 975 by the Vatican commission for Relations with Judaism, ask the Christians "to understand the Jew as he understands himself", in other words, to try to share the outlook of the Jewish subjectivity. This involves a particular approach to this city and a discovery of the centrality of this city for Jewish faith and Jewish identity.

I could summarize this discovery and this renewal of approach in three words: centrality, sacramentality, universality. Centrality, because Jerusalem is at the centre of Jewish prayer, Jewish observance, Jewish existence - just as it as the object of Jewish nostalgia for centuries.

Sacramentality, because for a Jew, Jerusalem is at the same time a mystery and a reality. This city - Yerushalayim shel zahav - the golden Jerusalem, is not only the symbol of a celestial city; Jerusalem in the heaven, but an earthly city of men - the city of which Teddy Kollek is <now 'was'> Mayor. It is simultaneously the political capital of this nation and the site of the Temple, over which the Shekhinah remains present; the historical setting of battles for eternal realities; a home and a sanctuary; a city where the sacred and the profane, the human and divine, time and eternity are interwoven.

Universality, because the vocation of this city is that of being both definitely singular - it is a Jewish city - and yet open for the whole world; a sanctuary, given to the Jews, but to which all nations are invited to come.

Thus, in God's education of His people as we find it in the Bible and as the Jews understand it, the return to Zion appears as a preliminary phase and the symbol of a much greater reality than the reconquest of a capital; it is a sacrament of the conversion of the heart, the challenging revelation of a call to peace and to a universal presence of which Jerusalem is the centre.

Unhappily, this vision, inspired by Isaiah and the other prophets, may seem very far from day-to-day reality, from the tumult of conflicts and war communiques. Yet through it we can see in what light the Jewish consciousness in Israel is irresistibly drawn to awareness of its role and destiny, if it is faithful to itself. It is in this light that we must look at Israel and invite it to evaluate itself, with the patience of God.

Several times since the Six-Day war. Israeli audiences - university students kibbutzniks, army officers - have asked me what I, as a Christian living here, think of the destiny of Israel as attested by its recent history: galut and geulah, exile and redemption of the Jewish people, dispersion and return to Zion: how and in what light would one interpret these? It was in the message of Isaiah that I found the substance of my reply. To Israeli friends I answered:

"Your return to Jerusalem has a significance only if you understand and accept all its challenges. To come back to Jerusalem is not only, for the Jewish people, a matter of regaining the political capital of a nation which has finally acquired its territory and independence. To come back to Jerusalem, for the Jewish soul, means to assume the spiritual responsibility of a vocation which concerns the entire universe, its unity, its harmony and peace.

"What does this universal vocation consist of'? What are its promises and demands? You know that, as a Christian, I have my answers. But you, Children of Israel, in the sincerity of your Jewish conscience, must recognize yours. Return to Zion, return to God. For a Jewish soul these two movements cannot be dissociated. I, as a Christian, invite you to recognize the challenge in this. It is an awesome responsibility, and a mysterious destiny: no one knows where it will lead and what it will demand if you are to be true to yourselves. This is the price that you must pay, if the will to live of the Jewish people is to have vindication and meaning."

I know that such language may be misunderstood by realists and extremists in both camps: inveterate anti-Zionists and unconditional nationalists. It seems, however, to be the only way to achievemutual respect and bring about peace in the long run.

If we believe in the continuity of the divine plan, of which this people was bearer and first messenger, it seems more consistent with Biblical and Gospel logic to trust in the dynamism of Gods's gift.

This is what is demanded of us, Christians, if we are to have the right to judge and speak truthfully. Respecting the self-awareness of the Jewish soul and espousing that dynamic force which sets its most vital pleas in motion, we will perhaps be able to grasp the real significance of this dynamism, to manifest the responsibility- which it implies, even to purify it and guide it in the context of a fraternal, true, yet demanding confrontation with our Israeli friends.

In this spirit, Jerusalem will be, without any doubt, the place where Jews and Christians can meet one another, according to the wish which, three years ago, the document of the French bishops concluded: "In a single movement of hope which will be a promise for the whole world".

Already we can see the benefits of this permanent exchange, this beautiful emulation, this mutual challenge, which a shared existence in Jerusalem as the centre of our faith makes possible. A true and loyal encounter on this level is the only condition for any solution of the status of this city according to its vocation.


The late Father Dubois was the director of a Catholic (Dominican, I think) Monastery in Jerusalem and a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. This lecture-essay was published originally at the 1980's by H. Leivik Publishing Co. It was scanned from copy given me by professor Dubois. 

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