From today’s Eucharistic lectionary (Psalm 122; Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 8:5-13):
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.” For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.” (Psalm 122: 6-9)
Jerusalem has been a byword for peace and prosperity, for the presence and saving help of God. It is a temple of God’s presence with God’s people, a holy city. Its name is closely related to Salem, a god’s name associated with prosperity and peace, and the Hebrew word for peace, shalom,* and the poet-psalmist uses these similarities to weave peace and prosperity into the very name of the holy city, the seat of God.
Yet in our own time Jerusalem has become a byword for conflict, for irreconcilable differences, for violence and despair. The holy city has become a stumbling block on which at least three religions and many cultures stub their toes and blame one another. We wonder whether we shall ever see peace, even as we proclaim “the peace that passes all understanding,” and look for the season of “peace on earth.”
Isaiah’s writings know of Jerusalem in war and in peace, under destruction and reconstruction, as a home and as the idealized home of the exile. The prophet knew that the holy city of Jerusalem was a real place, subject to real wars and politics. He warned of its downfall, he witnessed its destruction and desolation. Yet he kept faith in the promises of God. He remembered that as well as a living city, it was a symbol of God’s promise of God’s presence with the people. He knew that God’s promise endured longer than human wars, wants and despair. He continued to look for the day when God’s peace would prevail over all the earth. Only when all of the nations looked to God for their peace would it happen; but when it did, they should never “learn war” again.
Many of us long for that peace which passes all understanding. We know how far away it is when we see headlines that underscore the violence of our everyday lives (pepper spray as a shopping tool?) let alone of war. We see glimpses of it when we notice those who love peace better than being right.
As we look forward to the angels singing “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people,” we can only hope and trust in God’s promises, that all will be brought together in peace on God’s holy mountain, and learn war no more. And we can promise to avoid teaching war by the actions of our own, everyday lives.
*The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman (eds), (Oxford: OUP, 2000) Peace.