The ancient rabbis taught that when you walk through Jerusalem, you actually pass through two cities with each step. There is an earthly Jerusalem and a heavenly Jerusalem. This spiritual Jerusalem, the heavenly city promised by God, hovers just inches above the streets of the earthly Jerusalem. This is the Jerusalem of prophecy, the Jerusalem that might be.
The earthly task, the rabbis say, of good Jewish people (and I might add, of Good Christians as well) is to bring the two cities closer. The task of faith is to build those streets up, to raise up the earthly until it reaches the holy.
Today we hear frustration in the voice of our rabbi Jesus. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets. The very voices that tell us of the possibilities of the heavenly city are silenced by the powerful in the earthly city.
Today we are perhaps particularly aware of the power of humans to tear down. Images of Ukrainian hospitals and streets reduced to rubble by Russian forces have dominated the news. I do not minimize the pain of what is happening to the Ukrainian people, but I do have to note that the coverage of this war seems significantly more intensive when compared to coverage or violence in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Does the whiteness of the victims play in volume of attention paid? Does the fact that it is Russia acting as aggressor? Does Russian war in Europe stir up old trauma? Such questions are perhaps beyond my expertise. Suffice it to say, for today, violence is too common in our world. Cities are too often torn down. The distance between the heavenly city and the earthly often feels like it is being deepened rather than bridged.
Jesus does not often lament in the Gospels. More often he inspires, tells stories, prods, encourages. This moment is one of the few in the Gospels when we get a glimpse of this side of the Christ’s full humanity. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and gives us a surprising image. He says, “how I have longed to gather you as a mother hen gathers her chicks.” The word is feminine, and that was uncharacteristic of Jesus’ time. Male teachers did not often use feminine images for themselves, or for God. In recent centuries some of the old phobia of Jesus’ own time has returned. Some church leaders are loathe to use feminine imagery for God.
It has not always been this way. In the central apse of the great Cathedral of Kiev is the figure of Sophia, Holy Wisdom, in stunning mosaic. Ukraine’s great national church is dedicated in her honor. Like the Byzantines in Constantinople, the builders of the Hagia Sophia basilica, the Ukrainians took cues from the Hebrew Bible. Divine Wisdom is personified with feminine pronouns. In Proverbs she walks through marketplace. Sofia/wisdom is with the humble. Sofia/Wisdom is with those who take advice. The Orthodox who built Kiev’s Cathedral more than 1000 years ago dedicated it to God known through Sofia, Wisdom. So she stands in brilliant blue, in a field of shimmering gold, beautiful Sofia her arms in the orans position, as a priest above the altar. Sophia prays for the peace of the Ukrainian people, extending her disarmed blessing as she has for countless generations.
Thomas Merton wrote a poem titled Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom,
Sophia is the mercy of God in us. She is the tendernessThomas Merton: Hagia Sophia
with which the infinitely mysterious power of pardon
turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace.
She is the inexhaustible fountain of kindness, and would
almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy. So she does in us
a greater work than that of Creation: the work of new being
in grace, the work of pardon, the work of transformation from
brightness to brightness tamquam a Domini Spiritu. She
is in us the yielding and tender counterpart of the power, justice
and creative dynamism of the Father.
“How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.” I know many of us these days feel like we are searching for wisdom, amidst the strife. As people are fleeing, dying, starving, freezing, in what feels like such a far-off place. We are looking for the mercy, for the tenderness of God amidst the cruelty of men. What is there to do?
First, remember that lament is a continuous thread in the Bible. Abraham laments to God, complains to God. How will the promise be fulfilled if no child has been born? God meets him in lament and takes him out under the dark desert sky. Look up Abraham, your descendants will still be like the stars.
Lament is even known to Jesus. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets!” In just a few short weeks Jesus will process into Jerusalem. We will wave palms, as the crowd waved branches on the mount of Olives. Powerless to stop the violence ahead, we will shout hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”
This is the paradox of faith. God chose helplessness. God chose to stand with the weak, with the vulnerable. God is in Kiev now, in Mariupol, just as God is in Darfur, in San Salvador, in Kabul, in Gaza. God chooses vulnerability. God chooses to continue to try and gather us like chicks under Her wings. Yet we resist.
In times of war, it can be tempting to look for a warring God. We want the archangels to lead the charge with flaming swords against injustice. We want God to intervene in some dramatic way, to punish the oppressors. In this, we are not so unlike the soldiers and bystanders who looked upon Jesus on the cross and taunted, “if you are God’s son, come down. Save yourself, if you are the Messiah.” The words of the humans at the cross miss. God didn’t come to save God-self from violence, but to save us. The power of God does is not retributive violence. God’s power is surrender for the sake of love. God’s chooses accompaniment. God chooses solidarity with all those crucified by poverty, by injustice, by war.
We keep asking, “what can we do?” The answer is the same as it ever was. Accompany the victims. Stand with those who suffer. Donate, yes. Also pray. Lament. Open your frustration, your sadness, your helplessness to the God who chose to be helpless, for our sake.
Tonight some of us are going to gather here at the church again at 5pm. Organized by one of our young adults, during a service for Ukraine we are going to pray the Great Litany, a long and ancient prayer, which the Prayer Book tells us is especially to be prayed “in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.” How well does that rubric describe our time? In these days when so much renders us speechless, we have liturgy with plenty of words. We will say again and again, “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.”
Lament often asks God to hear. The response can be stunning.
Those rabbis who taught that the heavenly city hovers just inches above the earthly Jerusalem. They wrote in the second or third century. Just a few decades earlier, in 70 AD, the Emperor Vaspasian’s own son Titus ordered the entire Roman army to storm the temple. Thousands who had barricaded themselves inside Jerusalem’s walls were slaughtered. When the smoke cleared, the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth, was no more. The city, so glorious under Herod, the temple so admired by the disciples, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was a smoldering ruin, a garbage heap. And yet, the rabbis taught that even when you walked on Jerusalem’s ruined streets, you were just inches from the heavenly city.
The work of faithful people is never to lose sight of the justice, the hope, the fullness of life that can be. We pray. We seek out and stand with the lost, the least, the left out. We ask forgiveness. We soothe the suffering. We pity the afflicted. We hold the hands of the dying. We gather together with those who mourn. We shield the joyous. We build up, inch by inch, until our streets are just a little closer. We build up a city where hunger, and fear, and injustice are less present. We continue to stretch ourselves until the violence of the human city gives way to the love of God’s city. Even today, it waits, mere inches away.