Gates of Jerusalem

The item below is fetched up from the files, from earlier in this century. Lost in time, I have exhumed it so that it may be lost in time again. I can never help making a few changes, at least a word here or there when it strikes me that another would be more apt; or a fact that has become superannuated; or I insert lines, even whole paragraphs, to bridge what now seems too far a leap. And sometimes I delete things. You know me: always fussing, fussing; never getting to the point. Through Holy Week I intend to do more of the same: to continue posting daily as by vow, but escape most of the work so I can keep my mind fixed elsewhere. Let’s hope I don’t get sued for plagiarizing myself. God bless all surviving readers, and the others, too; keep them through this week in which the Christian teaching, in Gospel and in Liturgy, comes to its bloody point.


Christians celebrate today Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem — through Saint Stephen’s Gate, it must have been, riding on an ass. He was coming on the road from Jericho — through Bethpage, through Bethany — over the Mount of Olives, and down the Kidron side, then up the path towards the east wall of the city, from what I can make out.

Saint Stephen’s Gate (a.k.a. the Sheep Gate, the Lion Gate) is not now, nor was likely then, the grandest entry into Jerusalem. Saladin came through that way, in 1187, but only after his soldiers had considerably widened the opening. The Crusaders who took Jerusalem in the summer of 1099, tried the Zion Gate first, on the south side of the city, but finally used siege engines to break through the walls all over. General Allenby famously rode in to the Jaffa Gate on the west side, when claiming the city for the British in 1917. (We have photos: he dismounted at the gate and then walked in, out of respect to the city of his Saviour.) In 637, I believe Patriarch Sophronios would have gone to the Damascus Gate, on the north side, to surrender Jerusalem to Caliph Omar.

There have been quite a few other conquests of Jerusalem, triumphant entries into the city, and ignominious exits, over the last several millennia — I don’t know through which gates. We make much, and the Muslims make more, of that 1099 incident, when the conquest was followed by horrific slaughter; but only the year before, the Fatimids had taken Jerusalem from the Seljuks, in a non-prissy way. The Seljuks had previously taken it from the Fatimids in 1076, and so forth.

To the inhabitants of Jerusalem, these pink-skinned “Franks,” or Crusaders from the farthest ends of Europe, were a novelty. They must have seemed like visitors from Mars. It could be said, almost truthfully, that when you’ve seen one Musulman dynastic battle, you’ve seen them all. But to be fair to Islamic civilization in that era, the Crusaders proved somewhat rougher than even they were used to. The taking of Jerusalem in 1099 should indeed leave Christians feeling sick to our stomachs.

As the late American historian, Robert S. Lopez, described the conquerors at their earlier appearance in Sicily: “Actually the Normans were much like the ideal of the sagas and the chansons de geste — they were adventurous, fearless, unruly, insatiable, exceedingly gallant to willing and unwilling ladies of any social class, indiscriminately hard on unwarlike peasants and bourgeois, … and frequently very devoted to Christ, if not to his commandments.”

And the people at Saint Stephen’s Gate, meeting Christ on His entry into Jerusalem, and throwing palm fronds before Him, olive branches, and the odd cloak, perhaps anticipated the Normans in this last respect. They were for Christ. They were not necessarily like him.

Which is not to present Christ as the gliberals paint him today — as some kind of fairy pacifist preaching tolerance and multiculturalism. He was the one who said, in the Gospel of Matthew, “I bring not peace but a sword,” and that he would “set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.” In Saint Luke: “Do you think I come to bring Peace on Earth? I tell you, No.”

Upon passing through Saint Stephen’s Gate, he turned left and into the Temple — to do what? He pushed over the tables of the money changers, made a whip to scourge the sellers of sacrificial cattle and sheep, told the dove-sellers to (euphemism) “leave.”

This is the Christ that Western man is trying to delete from his collective memory: the Christ who could be confrontational. The Christ who was not, incidentally, making some effete protest against the commercialization of religion. Rather, the one who, as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Amos before Him, was denouncing the cult of animal sacrifice — the reduction of religion to cheap acts of propitiation; the violence done to the majesty of God. And the remark He makes about the “den of robbers” is quoted from Jeremiah, who had stood at the same spot, making the same point, some centuries before.

The palm of Palm Sunday is the old pagan emblem of victory, but the victory prefigured is not a worldly conquest — for Christ arrived at the head of no army. Rather, the victory that Christ will win is over Death, and it is from the Cross that He will conquer.

I find something strangely comic in the narrative of Palm Sunday. Not comic, outwardly, to laugh; but inwardly, sublimely comic — to think of the Creator of the Universe entering Jerusalem in the manner of Don Quixote. Or comic, if you will, in the sense of a “Divine Comedy.”

My little sermon today has been about religion and worldly power. They are two different things. They cannot understand one another. They start from different premisses, and seek for different ends.