Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

02 The Great Fall of Jerusalem

"Not a single stone here will be left on another"

September 8, A.D. 70: for over two long, bitter years, the garrison and population of Jerusalem have held out against the tough experienced, and technically superior Roman legions. But now the legionaries have mastered the ramparts and planted their standards on the towers of the great Temple. Pouring into the streets swords in hand, they massacre indiscriminately, burn and pillage until they choke the narrow streets with the dead and deluge the whole city in blood.

The magnificent Temple of Herod the Great -- "a mountain of shining gold and lustrous white marble, beckoning the pilgrim from afar," the historian Josephus described it -- is everywhere one mass of flame as the Romans carry their standards into the ruins of the sanctuary. The prophetic words of Jesus Christ, uttered over a generation earlier, have come true "Not a single stone here will be left on another; everything will be destroyed."

The Holy City had been one of loveliness and worldly splendour. Citadels and public buildings adorned its crowded streets, strong walls enclosed it, and its population of a quarter of a million people more than doubled three times a year when pilgrims from near and far converged onto the site of the Temple for the great religious festivals.

For Jerusalem was essentially holy: from time immemorial, it had been the heart of Jewish unity and tradition, the tangible embodiment of its religion and culture. It was the ancient site of Melchizedek's capital, the place where Abraham had offered his sacrifice; it was the glorious city of David and Solomon, and the theme of every devout Jew's daily prayer.

For Christians, it was the life-long goal of Jesus, the point towards which He moved throughout His public life, the location of His death and resurrection. It was the focus from which the Apostles left to preach the Gospel "to all nations," the point of origin of St. Paul's personal ministry.

Jerusalem was also the heart of Jewish worship and liturgy. The great Temple exalted the grand and solemn service of God. There, priests and Levites offered official prayer and sacrifice in the order and ceremony prescribed since the days of Moses. Day after day every prescription of the law was therein fulfilled in minutest detail, and every Sabbath, the ram's horn resounded to summon the chosen people to prayer.

Jerusalem was also the seat of Jewish extremism and zealotry. When rebellion flared up in A.D. 66, the Emperor Nero sent his best commanders, Vespasian and Titus, to subdue the colony. In A.D. 70, it was destroyed. The Temple was profaned. And the ram's horn was silenced over the Holy City until our own generation, 1,900 years later.

For all believers, the fall of Jerusalem was a sad and sombre turning point in history. (A generation earlier, Jesus had wept at the very thought of it.) The Old Covenant had come to an end. For both Jew and Gentile, there would be henceforth no turning back. The Jews would be without a homeland for almost 2000 years, and Christians would shift the centre of their activity away from the site of Christ's death and resurrection towards Antioch, and then towards Rome.

But in Catholic history, the fall of Jerusalem was more than a turning point. It was also a moment of new insight. At the "Council" of Jerusalem twenty years earlier, the nascent Church had intuited that the Gospel could be preached and accepted outside the Jewish order. Yet in prayer and liturgy it continued Jewish. The great majority of Christians continued to frequent the Temple and, outside Jerusalem, to pray in the synagogues.

Now, with Jerusalem in ruins, they understood that Christianity must develop outside of Judaism; that Christ's message was not tied to a single culture, nor linked with worship in a single place. The liturgy of the Old Testament and the cult connected with the Temple had to cease. A new sort of worship must take its place.

"The hour is coming," Christ had told the Samaritan woman at the well, "when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... True worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth" (John IV, 21).

Henceforth Christian worship centered elsewhere -- wherever, in fact, two or three were gathered in Christ's name, wherever He would be recognized in the breaking of the bread.

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