Awaiting the New Jerusalem

Some five hundred years before the coming of Christ, the people of Israel found themselves scattered among the nations of the ancient Near East.  Their exile into Babylon had come to an end, yet many remained in the diaspora, the great dispersion of God’s elect flock.  What united them above all was their longing to return to their homeland, to worship once again in the holy city of Jerusalem, situated on Mount Zion.  “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” they had sung in their bitter lament, “let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you…” (Ps 136/137).  Finally, deliverance came with the victory over Babylon of the Persian king Cyrus.  Still, the people were scattered abroad, many of them subject to the rule of despotic pagans.

The third and last portion of the Book of Isaiah (chs. 56-66) is a proclamation of salvation, an oracle of hope and promise, uttered by the voice of God speaking through the prophet.  It addresses Israel’s plight with resounding assurance that by God’s presence in their midst the people would be gathered together and restored to their homeland.  With this assurance went the promise that restoration would include the nations of the Gentiles.  Converted from the darkness of idolatry to the light of true faith, foreign rulers would ascend to Jerusalem with their power and wealth, to lay it at the feet of the chosen people, and to honor and worship the Lord as Redeemer, the Holy and Mighty One of Israel.

Chapter 60 begins with a magnificent cultic hymn addressed to Zion, composed in rhythmic parallelism.  Its theme is the radiant appearance of God to His elect ones, together with assurance that as Israel’s people will be restored to their native land, so the foreign nations will venture out of spiritual darkness and into the glory of the Lord.

Arise,

Shine!

For your light has come,

and the glory

of the Lord

has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth

and thick darkness the peoples.

But upon you will arise

the Lord,

and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,

       and kings to the brightness

of your rising!

Like the Israelites in Babylon, Christ, the eternal Son of God, finds Himself exiled in the realm of death.  He, the Messiah who embodies and fulfills Israel, has suffered and died.  His disciples are scattered in a dispersion of their own, unable to comprehend the divine plan that will draw life from death, and lead God’s people back to their true homeland, into “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…” (Rev 21).

Like Israel in exile, we await final salvation, and we do so with an often terrible longing.  Isaiah’s oracle is addressed to those Hebrews who were still scattered abroad, still far from the only locus, the only reality, that could satisfy their desire: the holy city of Jerusalem, with its Temple worship.  It is this longing, more than any ethnic associations, that identified them as true Israelites.  The case is the same within the life of the Church.  As “the Israel of God” (Gal 6), we find ourselves living as strangers in a foreign land.  We are constantly tempted to “forget Jerusalem,” either because the hope seems so remote or the pain of separation is so intense.

From the early days of the Church, Christian people have known themselves to be living in exile, held captive in a “foreign land” and unable to return to their true home.  They are and have been as the author of the Epistle to Diognetus (late 2nd century?) describes them:

“They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers.  Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country…  They pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.” 11

That heaven is the new Jerusalem of the prophet’s vision, the “heavenly Kingdom” that images glorified life in eternal communion with God.  This is what we long for: to “return,” paradoxically, to that place we have never yet truly known, but which we hold in our minds and hearts as the fulfillment of every hope, every longing.

Like Israel, our return in the grace and power of our Lord is promised to us not only for our own sake, but for the sake of “the nations.”  As we declare in the Liturgy, our salvation and the fulfillment of our most urgent desire is accomplished “for the life of the world.”

The prophet’s voice addresses the Church just as it addressed the Jerusalem of old: “Arise, shine, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!”  That glory, that radiant splendor, has shown out of the darkness of the tomb, to illumine for all peoples the pathway that leads toward the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, whose light is the glory of God and whose lamp is the Lamb, slain and risen.

“May I not forget you, O Jerusalem, homeland of our fathers and goal of our earthly pilgrimage!  May the glory of the Lord rise upon you, that I and all people might come to know, to believe, and to proclaim that ‘rising’ to be the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our hope of glory and the author of our salvation!”


  1. K. Lake, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2 (Harvard University Press, 1959), p. 358-361. []