What mean these stones?

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Advent, Mark 13.1-8 though it also draws attention to the fact that many churches will keep this coming Sunday as Remembrance Sunday.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

*****

Whenever I think of Jerusalem, a city in which I was privileged to live for five years,  in my mind’s eye I find myself thinking of rocks and stones. Stones and Jerusalem somehow belong together. There are the hard rocky outcrops on which the city itself is built or of the Mount of Olives just to its east. The aridity of the terrain – in a land in which rainfall is hardly adequate and there is only one natural spring (the Gihon) in the proximity – means that the bare stony ground is little covered by vegetation.  Walking around in the rough ground outside the city this is very obvious – and hard on one’s feet.

Then there are the buildings in the city. Traditionally, and now I believe also legally, all buildings are erected with ‘Jerusalem stone’ – which has the capacity to glow golden in the light of the Jerusalem sun.

There are the stone walls of the city themselves – the present day walls dating back to the early 16th century but which in many places have been built on the foundations of earlier ones. Sometimes that continuity is obvious – as for example in the vestiges of the Golden Gate of the city, which can be seen in its eastern wall.

There is of course the Rock that sits there embedded in the present day eponymous Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock. This seems also to have played a role also in the Jewish holy places that have been built on that site before it – Solomon’s Temple, the post-exilic Temple and Herod’s Temple – and perhaps also to have encouraged the description of God as ‘my Rock’ e.g. Psalm 18.2 ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer’.

So it is not surprising, that in reading the lectionary for this week, Mark 13.1-8, the opening section of what is called Mark’s ‘Little Apocalypse’ ,  it is the note about rocks and stones that ‘shouts out’ to me.

Jesus has previously been teaching in the Temple, in a series of episodes that tellingly end with the story of a widow ‘offering her all’ to help the support of this building (Mark 12.41-44).

In response to his disciples’ comment about the ‘large stones’ in the Temple Jesus  responds ‘not one stone will be left upon another: all will be thrown down.’ It seems to refer to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple which happened in 70 AD in the war between the Romans and the Jews. Although there was a brief attempt to reuse and even possibly rebuild the Temple during what is known as the Second Jewish Revolt (132-35AD), the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD really marked the end of Judaism as a temple based religion, but also its birth as a religion in which the rabbinic writings would become increasingly influential.

The disciples’ awe at the size of the stones is appropriate. One of the features of the Herodian Temple (newly built in Jesus’ lifetime) was the enormous stones used in its construction, distinctly edged with a margin. Some of them can still be seen to this day – in the western wall of the Haram esh Sherif (Temple Mount). These have long been visible to the naked eye: many more can now be seen due to the recent excavations in the area, which have created a series of tunnels in which visitors can walk. (In parenthesis I am very ambiguous about these excavations which are illegal under international law.)

A stone in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount/Haram esh Sherif

In fact of course, ironically, Jesus’ words were not fully fulfilled. The stones were so large, and therefore so difficult to move, that though the Temple building itself may have been destroyed, many of the stones that made up the outer retaining walls of the complex have been left in place for over 2000 years. One stone has been left upon another.

Jerusalem’s stones though, for me, symbolise something telling about the city. Jerusalem is a hard place, like stones are hard. It is a hard place to live and a hard place in which to build peace, partly in fact because of the possessiveness with which people cling to its stones. Its stones can be dangerous. It is also symptomatic that the capital punishment which seems to be referred to most frequently in our scriptures involves putting people to death by throwing stones at them.

Stones are often linked to memory. This is true in many cultures, where for example a ‘cairn’ of stones marks an event or an achievement. The title I have used his week ‘what mean these stones’ is taken from the Book of Joshua (Joshua 4.21), where after the people have crossed the river Jordan Joshua commands the setting up of a circle of 12 stones in Gilgal, to remind future generations of God’s care for and protection of the people as he led them from Egypt through the wilderness into the desert.

Memory itself however can be difficult and dangerous. The story of the Holy Land is that its history has been plagued by the competing memories of different people, each jostling for their place in the strange mosaic of that ‘wall’ of stones. Somehow we need to help each other to smooth the rough edges off each other’s stones so that we can build a wall of shared peace. It is at least a wonderful vision to aspire for!

I do have an instinct that there is a contribution that Christianity ought to be able to make to all this due to the understanding of ‘memory’ that is a vital part of our scripture. Memory – yet also its power to be transformed and to transform human life is at the heart of our story of faith, it is also profoundly symbolised in the central sacrament of the Christian Church. I say we ‘ought’ to be able to make: I am of course well aware, at least as a person who has worked in the field of interreligious relations, that we have all too often failed to do so, frequently abjectly.

It is of course interesting to be writing about this in a week in which we in Europe (and in many other parts of the world) focus on remembering both those who died in the great wars of the last century, and the wars themselves. Memory – and its dangerous features –  has all too often contributed to the history and the lack of peace in Europe. I believe that it has played a negative role in shaping recent developments in the continent.

It would be interesting to further reflect on the link between ‘stones’ and the genre of apocalyptic (in which this week’s Gospel is couched). I have an instinct that apocalyptic is itself a rather dangerous and ‘stony’ biblical genre. Time and space does not allow for further comment here – but I invite anyone interested in taking forward the discussion to drop me a note…

So I conclude by returning in mind and heart even unto the Holy Land, and sharing with you the beautiful and evocative prayer of Gerald Butt, which I am sure, at least at the sub-conscious level, influenced what I have written this week:

O Lord soften the stone hearts

of those who preach and practise

intolerance and bigotry;

as the sun’s setting glow

softens the stone walls

of your Holy City, Jerusalem.

Lord, the rocky hills, the valleys,

the deserts and the sea shores

are filled with the echoes of centuries of pain.

Lord, bring peace to house and village.

Comfort the mothers who fret

and those who mourn.

Lord, keep strong the twisted old root

of the olive tree,

and protect the young vine.

Lord of water and stone,

of bread and wine,

Lord of the resurrection,

feed hope, and bring peace

to the wracked but beautiful holy land.

(Gerald Butt)

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