The New Jerusalem, The Apocalypse Tapestry 14th Century, Château d’Angers, Angers, France.
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…. Revelation 21:2.
The three readings today present a bit of a problem for the homilist. There are no miracles, no parables, no disputes, no actions really to talk about. But they do all talk about success and triumph in some way. The evangelizing apostles in the first reading returned to Antioch having made a “considerable number of disciples”. John, in his Book of Revelation, describes a glorious vision of a New Jerusalem coming from heaven by the hand of God where God will dwell with us, where every tear will be wiped away, where there will be no more death, no more pain. Then Jesus in today’s gospel describes God glorifying the Son of Man and the Son of Man returning to the glory of God. So the image of success, of the power of God, emerges. So I began to wonder how all this was transmitted to the faithful once the Christian Church had emerged from the darkness of persecution in its first 300 years. Last week we saw the earliest images of Jesus emerge as the Good Shepherd, from the late third to the early fourth centuries. But things did not stop there. Understanding the Scriptures in a pictorial way became very important in the church, especially as the majority of people could not read, almost certainly including many of those early converts mentioned in the first reading. Images therefore took on an enormously important role in seeking to explain passages such as today’s readings. The medieval tapistry picture above is one way, literally Jerusalem descending from God as witnessed by John. So how do you convey “glory” as applied to Jesus? Certainly those first, ancient, shepherd images convey certain values, tenderness, care, reliability and so on, but not really “glory”. The early church looked for ideas in the pagan world around, and found this:
This is a carving of Sol Invictus (“Unconquerable Sun”), the sun god of the ancient Romans. It adorns a portico of the altar in the temple of Pergamon in the eponymous museum in Berlin, Germany. Pergamon was a rich and powerful Roman city in what is now Turkey, consequently it could construct temples to the gods to ensure its continued wealth and strength. But look at the god, with rays streaming from his head. It signifies his glory. The early Christians saw that, and copied it:
Here is the Good Shepherd once more, but this is mid-4th century perhaps 100 or so years later than last week’s Good Shepherd. His clothing is more what we would call traditional, and he has somewhat longer but still Roman-style hair and still beardless. But now he has a halo, a sign of his glory. This is from the spectacular tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna in Italy. She was the daughter of the Roman emperor Theodosius I and she died in 450 CE. Now consider that the god Sol Invictus 200 years or so earlier was assigned an official cultic feast day by the pagan emperor Aurelian, and it was 25 December. Remember that in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, when the sun is lowest in the heavens, occurs around 22 December. At that moment the sun begins to rise in the sky once more, to resurrect you might say. The early church noticed that also, and banished Sol and assigned the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus instead. Recall that the only mention of time of the year in the Nativity passages is the shepherds in the fields. They would not have been there in the depths of winter; it is cold in the Holy Land in winter! 25 December was chosen more for its symbolic value than historical accuracy. Jesus’ birth, then, heralds the appearance of the new sun/son on earth, doubly signaled by his halo.
Jerusalem for centuries before the Christian Scriptures, and also at the time of their writing, and in the centuries since, has occupied an extremely important place in Christian and Jewish thinking, and after the 6th century, in Islamic thinking also. It is the holiest place on earth for Jews, who gather at the old Western Wall which once supported the Temple of Solomon above, where the Holy of Holies once stood. For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre claims to be the place where Jesus was crucified, was buried and rose from the dead. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the third holiest place on earth for Muslims, as it was from there that the Prophet Mohammed was conducted into heaven.
Which brings us to the last lines of today’s gospel:
[Jesus said] “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35.
…and that I think is the heart of today’s readings, (though not, unhappily, in the history of that same Jerusalem with its many trevails over the centuries). When the various images described above are combined, they become the goal of holiness which every Christian sets for him/herself: building a New Jerusalem to the best of our abilities and God-given gifts wherever we live and work, demonstrating in our lives the power of goodness, of love, of God, and thereby hopefully earning a halo for ourselves when we are called from this life. The First Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation in the Mass states this goal very clearly:
Help us to work together for the coming of your Kingdom, until the hour when we stand before you, Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the blessed Apostles and all the Saints, and with our deceased brothers and sisters, whom we humbly commend to your mercy.
Amen to that.