Music has always been an important part of my life. I’ve been singing since I was very young child and I began playing the piano at age 3. Until I went to school all my singing were basically things I learned at church or commercials. I’ve forgotten most of the commercials, but I do remember the church songs which, quite often, were psalms or scriptures. They made the words very easy to memorize. Many times I’ve had one or another of them running through my head at very opportune times, times when I’ve needed that particular bit of reassurance, praise, or whatever. I loved learning to chant the canticles of Morning Prayer, knowing I could call them up in my memory at will and not have to resort to a prayer book or Bible.
While reading Psalm 122, a musical arrangement that I had learned a number of years ago started playing in my head. This psalm itself had been used as an entrance anthem in every coronation since that of Charles I of England. There have been a number of versions written for coronations by some of the greatest musicians in English history. The version that runs through my head was written in 1902 by Sir Hubert Parry. It’s a grand anthem for double choir, and has also been used at other events such as the weddings of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and the Duke of Cambridge and Kate Middleton. It’s a celebratory anthem beginning with the words, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’ ”
It wasn’t written for a coronation but rather as a pilgrim praising a visit to the holy city of Jerusalem. It celebrated safe arrival of the pilgrim as well as the greatness of the city with its strong walls and members of every tribe of Israel mingling together within those walls. It had been the capital city of David, and the throne of David was seen as a throne of judgment and justice. The Temple was the place of sacrifice and the home of God on earth, a humbling but uplifting place in the hearts of the people, and the place where strife and bitterness between tribes could be set aside so that peace would reign and not hinder the worship of God.
The line that strikes me is that which says , “Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.” Jerusalem has been a city far from peaceful for generations. Once lost to the Jews after the fall of the Temple in A D 70, it passed into the hands of others until 1945 when Jews displaced in Europe returned to claim their ancestral homeland. Since then it has been a nation and a city in turmoil with short periods of quiet where Jews, Christians, and Muslims could live and worship in safety. That fragile peace has often been shattered and fear has taken its place.
The psalmist declared, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.’ ” We pray for the Jerusalem we see as a center of our faith tradition. We are praying not as much for the nation of Israel as we are for the spiritual home and health of the many people who look to Jerusalem as a foundation of faith. We sing hymns praising Jerusalem and seeing her as an important place in the life of our Lord and the early church, yet we watch the news and see the destruction and bloodshed almost passively. We have seemingly no time to even pray for peace much less work for it.
I wonder what the psalmist would say if he were to visit Jerusalem today. The great Temple is gone and is replaced by a mosque with a golden dome. The remaining wall around Temple Mount is a place of prayer and yet a place of division since women and men are not permitted to pray side-by-side. Churches in the Christian quarter suffer damage and destruction because they are seen as threats to both Jews and Muslims. Yet from the hills surrounding Jerusalem, the view is of beautiful city and one blessed by God.
In his anthem, Parry did not use all the verses of Psalm 122 but he gives us the flavor of the psalmist’s intention. Even though reality is different than the poetic anthem of the psalmist, as it runs through my head it reminds me to continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that there may be quietness within their towers, and that they may prosper under God’s watchful care. God still is present in Jerusalem even though the Temple is gone, just as God is present in other places of strife and warfare. God is present in our cities and towns, in peace and in turmoil.
May we continue to pray for peace, safety, and prosperity for ourselves and for all the world’s people, God’s people. All are God’s people, regardless of the name they use when they call on God or even if they use no name at all.
Image: from Wikimedia Commons public domain