Temple-Mount Chaos

Goofball on the horizon
Goofball on the horizon

Not sure if everyone knows that the city of Jerusalem sits on the brink of chaotic violence at this moment.

I laid eyes on the Dome of the Rock myself, up close, on Feb. 24, 2008. I wanted to see the place where Abraham obeyed God unto the edge of utter darkness. But: having a Roman cassock on gets you waved off by the Jordanian guards right quick…

This evening, on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff misidentified the Dome of the Rock, calling it the Al-Aksa Mosque (which sits 100 yards south of the site of the near-sacrifice of Isaac). An understandable mistake. But at the same time, quite telling–when it comes to our utter ignorance, as Americans, of what we are dealing with.

If I might, an amateur’s dime-store history for you:

Abraham climbed the mountain with Isaac, but God wound up providing the lamb for sacrifice. Centuries later, Solomon built on this site, and the sweet scent of burning oblations began to ascend at the appointed hours.

After Babylon leveled the Temple, the Israelites rebuilt. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great enlarged the humble Second Temple and made it a wonder of the world.

Zechariah (of the New Testament) found himself struck dumb here, because he didn’t believe he could father John the Baptist. Our Lord frequented this site often, as we read. But the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant took place outside the then-walls of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which houses Golgatha also) lies west of the Temple Mount, a good twenty-minute walk through the maze of Old-City streets.

Thus, the journos’ claim that the Temple Mount is holy to Christians, just like Jews and Muslims: Not exactly, not exactly. It is exceedingly imprecise to refer to the Temple Mount as a Christian holy site. We have no particular designs on worshiping there.

Anyway, back to the dime-store history: Rome leveled Jerusalem in the first and second centuries of the Age of Grace. The western wall of Herod’s temple survived. After Constantine converted to Christianity, Jerusalem had a few centuries as a Christian city.

Mohammed consecrated the Temple-Mount site for his followers in some way that I neither know nor understand.

A millennium later, under Turkish rule, the Status Quo was established. I am in no way an expert on this, but I think I can safely summarize: On a certain date, about half a millennium ago, Jews of various kinds prayed in various places, and in various ways, and at various times of day (and week and year) in Jerusalem; Christians of different kinds did the same; Muslims of different kinds also. The way they prayed at that time was enshrined as the norm, and it cannot be changed.

The Status Quo enjoys the beautiful authority of having been established by none of the partisans, and–at this point in time–it also has history behind it. It is the delicate and precarious arrangement that keeps the peace in every holy place in the holiest city in the world.

If you have never visited, you cannot adequately imagine just how up-close-and-personal the realities of the Status Quo are. There is literally no elbow room, no room for error; the people on either side of the lines established by the Status Quo can smell each other, and I am not exaggerating. The first time I ever entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I wanted to pray in the Golgatha Chapel. For five minutes I could, but then I had to leave, since I am a Roman Catholic priest, and the Status Quo prohibits us being in that chapel when the Orthodox have their evening prayers. Muslims meditating among the trees between Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock literally stand on top of Jews praying at the Western Wall. “Cramped” does not even begin to describe the religious reality of Jerusalem.

To modern times… After the Holocaust, the Western world fully embraced the Zionist enterprise, and the nation-state of Israel received international approbation and support. But Jerusalem did not make up part of the original land. Jerusalem and environs remained in a unique category (I guess, like the Vatican). To this day, our official US policy does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city. (Israel took control of Jerusalem in 1967.)

For some time now, Jerusalem has been a relatively safe place. No reasonable person would hesitate to travel there as a Christian pilgrim. That appears to be on the verge of changing. To read of an Israeli-Palestinian gunfight in the neighborhood that immediately abuts the site of the Last Supper (and the Assumption of our Lady; they are right around the corner from each other)–this is chilling news. The Israeli police disturbed the Status Quo by asserting authority (which, in fact, the sovereign of Jordan actually possesses) and shutting the Temple-Mount mosque today. Palestinians appear to be mustering for mischief.

Please, let’s pray.

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