SOME OF YOU will recognise this picture. The large piece of rock in front of the altar is the traditional rock of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Our Lord prayed after the Last Supper before his arrest. Because of the importance of this site, the church built around this rock is known for some time as The Church of All Nations (partly because the present-day church was built after the First World War with contributions from twelve nations). In the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, the city of Jerusalem is portrayed as a place to which – although it is historically the physical centre of the kingdom of Judah – all the nations of the world will come together. In the scriptural vision of God’s reign at the end of time, Jerusalem has a symbolic significance as the place where this act of reconciliation will happen. The word itself in Hebrew means ‘city of peace’.
This theological vision has to live alongside the uncomfortable fact that Jerusalem, for much of its long history, has not been a place of reconciliation or peace. Holy Places like the Church of All Nations exist and were built in a particular context – none of these places in the Holy Land permit us to run away from history. One of the many reasons why the Protestant ‘Garden Tomb’ in Jerusalem, constructed in the wrong place because some Christians couldn’t cope with the ‘mess’ of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, doesn’t work is that it tries to take the visitor out of history, to construct a false theme park. By contrast the authentic and traditional Holy Places speak to us not only of the events surrounding Our Lord’s life, death and resurrection, but also of Christian history over the last two thousand years, with all that history’s flaws, pain and brutality.
This brutality and suffering is still in Jerusalem today – indeed, as elsewhere, we are more aware of this than would have been true for Christians in England in previous centuries, because of modern communications. Catholics and other Christians need to be aware of the sufferings of Christians in the Holy Land – in many places Christian communities have been decimated or ceased to exist, some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. These things haven’t just happened by accident – they result from specific actions, such as the policies of the State of Israel or the rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, which many of you support, and other groups like the Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulchre do a great deal to raise awareness of the sufferings of Palestinian Christians and to raise money to help these beleaguered communities.
The phrase ‘Church of All Nations’ describes the reality of the Catholic Church of which we are all a part. More than is really true of other Christian denominations in this country, Catholic parishes, by and large, are truly diverse in their make-up: indeed many, including this one, are much more so than in the recent past. This has enriched our communities immeasurably; it also enables us to offer something special to others. At a time of fearfulness and suspicion, here and all over the world, a time when the crudest and most unintelligent nationalism seems to be rising again, when political leaders repeatedly resort to lies to stir up hatred against others – the Christian religion offers a different way of thinking, a different way of living.
We celebrated what all this is about this weekend at our International Mass, and the party which followed – and many thanks to Sandy Misquitta, due to be a deacon in about a year’s time, God willing, for organising it. This celebration was a true act of rejoicing at what God has brought about in St Edmund’s, over and against the hatred in our society. The first such celebration was held in September 2016, only a few months after the ‘Brexit’ referendum – an effort to give people hope, to join together in solidarity and friendship within our unique community. That celebration didn’t make all the problems go away (quite a lot of things are rather worse than we might have imagined in September 2016), but with other things we have done in our parish we have grown in strength and faithfulness; we have deepened our sense of Catholic identity in the face of all that divides British society.
The scriptural vision behind this weekend’s celebration is well known, from Isaiah chapter 2: ‘In the days to come, the mountain of the Temple of the Lord shall tower above the mountains, and be lifted higher than the hills. All the nations will stream to it, peoples without number will come to it, and they will say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths, since the Law will go out from Zion, and the oracle of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples; these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war’.