The city of Jerusalem is the geographical centre of salvation history. A place of endless sorrow and unmeasured joy, there is something fierce and uncompromising about its history, not only in the centuries before the time of Jesus but in the centuries after him, continuing even to our own day.
We are told twice in today’s gospel that Jesus ‘set his face’ towards Jerusalem. The holy city is the place of Mount Zion, the place of the Temple mount, and had come to symbolise the people and their relationship with God. The city is Israel and God’s dealings with Zion, the place of His dwelling, are God’s dealings with Israel, the people He has made His own. Jerusalem encapsulates all the joy and all the sorrow that have attended that covenant relationship over the centuries. It was the place where God revealed Himself most completely through the words of His prophets. It was the place of liturgy and sacrifice, offered in the presence of God. It was the place of royal power from which the wisdom and guidance of God were to go forth to all the nations.
It is not right that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem, Jesus says, and so when God finally sent His Son, the Son set his face towards Jerusalem. The first devastation of the city, with the loss of the Temple and the experience of exile, had eventually led to a new freedom in the people’s understanding of God and to a new intimacy in their relationship with God. The great prophets of the exile helped them towards that understanding and towards that new intimacy. God became at once more universal (Creator and Lord of all the earth) and more local (all the nations will come to Mount Zion), more transcendent (my ways and thoughts are far above) and more intimate (I will establish a new covenant written on human hearts).
The final destruction of Jerusalem is the killing of Jesus. He is Israel, the people called to be faithful. He is the Temple, the dwelling of God with human beings. He is destroyed in Jerusalem. His decision to set his face towards Jerusalem was not a political strategy, it was a theological necessity: he had come to do the Father’s will and that meant journeying towards Jerusalem. He is already living with complete freedom and total intimacy the relationship with the Father in which he wishes his disciples to share. As he journeys towards the earthly Jerusalem he is already living in the city that is to come. Through his death and resurrection in Jerusalem he has established a new freedom and a new intimacy in the relationship between His people and the Eternal Father: this is the grace of the New Testament, a new abiding of God with us, the grace carried in the earthen vessel that is the Church.
With each loss of Jerusalem there is a new and deeper understanding of God. With each loss of the Holy Place there is a new appreciation of the otherness and closeness of God. With each entry into the darkness of God’s absence there is a more profound realization of the way in which God has identified Himself with His people, abiding now in them wherever in the world they live as they abide in Him who is always near, always approaching, God’s face always set towards us.