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Sermon: O pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Katherine Dienes-Williams
Sunday 16th March 2014
St Mary's Warwick

Some years ago now, at the end of summer, a group of people climbed to the Worcestershire Beacon in the Malvern Hills. It was almost at the time of year of the great autumn festivals reflected in the Psalms – the ‘hag’ or pilgrimage festival, known in Arabic as the haj. A new agricultural cycle was about to begin – in the Malverns of England in the 21st century just as in ancient Palestine at the time of the psalm narratives. On that late summer’s day in the Malvern Hills, not so many miles distant from the great Cathedral towns of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford, the climb to the top was hard work and slow going. However, with eyes always ahead of us and thoughts of the view we would be afforded from the top, we continued on till we reached our goal and were rewarded with the most fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. Even today, as the choir men of St. Mary’s sit round in their local hostelry, those that were there to make the climb that day with me will recall that pilgrimage, a pilgrimage undertaken with friends. Perhaps we were searching for something as simple as a great view, perhaps we gained strength from that journey, or perhaps we were there in support of each other. Whatever the reason, the trip we made that day caused us to reflect on the journey.

So we find ourselves in this season of Lent, reflecting on Christ’s journey to the Cross, as we undertake our own Lenten pilgrimage leading us to the Holy City. For each of us, a Lenten pilgrimage can be both deeply personal and a shared act of learning and prayer. As we walk through our daily lives, our senses are heightened, we come in penitence and faith, and walk together to where the Cross awaits us with its outstretched arms of Love. Christ’s journey to the Cross was both a lonely journey and very much a journey with and for all of us. Were you or I to walk in pilgrimage to one of the most ancient and holy cities in the world today, the Jerusalem of Psalm 122 and the psalm poetry of Herbert Howells’ anthem, ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’, we might come across other pilgrims undertaking the route up into the hills high above sea level. Last Sunday, a priest recounted to me his pilgrimage to Jerusalem with a group of Australian priests – the route along which the man of Luke’s gospel travelled alone, only to be set upon and beaten. Of all the passers-by that day, it was a Samaritan who stopped to offer help. Along this same route, the priest and his Australian friends came across a party of young Jewish men making their 46 kilometre pilgrimage from Jericho to Jerusalem by walking in fellowship – yet led at the front and back by an armed guard.

The city of Jerusalem has been besieged on more than 50 occasions, conquered 36 times and has suffered no less than 10 total destructions. Less than 150 years ago there were no houses outside the Old City walls. It is the city where the pilgrim psalmist was glad to go into the house of the Lord. The city for which Herbert Howells, an English composer born in Lydney, Gloucestershire in 1892, composed a choral work based on the psalm poetry of verses 6 and 7 of Psalm 122: ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces.’

A longing for the Holy Land, in particular for Jerusalem or Sion, is an important part of Jewish tradition, and Psalm 122 speaks of the themes of promise and gift of the land to the patriarchs and their descendants, the experience of exile and the prospect of return and the exaltation of Jerusalem as the city chosen by God himself to be the dwelling place of his name within the ancient temple, in an area situated today in the south-east corner of the old city, which comprises a fifth of its area. It is here that Abraham is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God. In 1000 BC King David ‘built an altar unto the Lord’ here, having purchased the ground from Araunah, who had used it as a threshing floor. It is here that King Solomon, son of David, built the first temple in 950 BC. The temple became a permanent resting place for the Ark of the Covenant – God enthroned on earth. The Babylonians destroyed this temple in 586 BC when the Jews were taken into exile. Fifty years later they were allowed to return and rebuild to the same plan. Construction of the existing temple platform was begun by Herod the Great in about 20 BC. This ‘second temple’ was still being completed in the time of Jesus – a temple where he was presented as a baby, and where his parents later found him lingering among the teachers. In AD 70 Jerusalem was destroyed by order of the Titus, Emperor of Rome. It has never been rebuilt. Strict Orthodox Jews do not enter the temple area today because the ground is regarded as too sacred to walk upon – having been the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead they worship at the Western Wall.

The ancient assembly on Mount Zion for the great autumnal festival represented all the twelve tribes of Israel (in former times often hostile to each other) ‘united in fellowship,’ ruled by the Lord through the house of David, prospering as they prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. In the encountering of God, the Most High together, this vision transcended national concerns.

The author, John Eaton, in his commentary on the Psalms, describes Psalm 122 as ‘ ‘A Song of Zion’, appreciating Jerusalem as the city of the Lord’s house, the goal of pilgrims, where his name and presence are praised in the gathering of his people, and his justice effected by the house of David.’ Eaton sees this psalm as part of the autumn festival – a festival centred on the Lord’s kingship, and on the renewal of the royal office on earth (the man chosen to be the servant of the Lord’s kingship). Eaton also notes that the psalm’s poet makes use of the pilgrim’s experience, either during the journey or after it.

This is the psalm poetry which Herbert Howells chose to set to music, as he and his wife were snowed in in a cottage in Gloucester in January 1941. To pass the time, Howells wrote four anthems at the rate of one a day. The first of these is ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and it has an unusually simple musical texture for Howells, with long expressive unison phrases. Apart from a brief central climax at the words ‘and plenteousness within thy palaces’, it is a suitably restrained piece. In looking at this setting from a musical perspective, it is interesting to note the length of the melodic phrases and the yearning interval of the open 5th – a pure interval, a pure space between two notes marking the words ‘O pray’. This gives something of a sense of longing to the command. There is a further rising interval colouring the word ‘Jerusalem’ – perhaps an unconscious thought to its high position above sea level. Throughout the piece, I have always felt that the music establishes a contemplative mood – it feels as if the composer is reminiscing, whilst in the more urgent middle section he recalls something of a journey as the music passes through new keys – at once both a pilgrimage and a prayer.

We can only speculate how Howells was able to respond so well to the psalm text. We know that he was the youngest of six children, and that his father owned a building and decorating business and played the organ at the local Baptist Chapel. Howells’ family was not otherwise particularly musical as such. However, Howells was drawn to music from a young age and used to ask if he could go home from school to write music. The chance of a boy in Lydney hearing any music written by great composers was virtually non-existent iat the start of the twentieth century. There was little in the way of musical activity outside the church, and the music of the church was mostly limited to hymns, at a time when neither words nor music were at their most inspired. To study music at all, it was necessary to go to London or at least some sizeable town. Unfortunately, Howells’ family suffered from severe financial problems and his father’s eventual bankruptcy considerably reduced any local standing the family might have had. Fortunately, the local squire, Charles Bathurst (later Lord Bledisloe) introduced the young Herbert Howells to the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, Sir Herbert Brewer. At the rather late age of 14, Herbert began music lessons from Brewer. These were ostensibly piano lessons but in fact they covered much more. The Bathurst family helped with the finances, and eventually Charles Bathurst persuaded Brewer to accept Howells as an articled pupil. This system, which has died out in our cathedrals and churches, enabled a young musician to receive a thorough grounding in church music and keyboard playing, as well as harmony and counterpoint leading to composition, and the pupil would assist the cathedral organist with his duties. Howells was surely influenced by the architecture and beauty of Gloucester Cathedral and the sound of the organ and choir in that atmospheric acoustic.

Howells was already aware of beauty in various forms, as he would to churches with workmen from his father’s decorating firm – so he had an early understanding of beauty in architecture. Later, the composer recalled an occasion when he was out riding with a local baker and witnessed a radiant sunset. This early sensibility to beauty is a quality that is so often apparent in his music. Sheer beauty of sound is a characteristic of just about all that he composed on his personal journey as a composer - from a young boy visiting churches, then on to Gloucester Cathedral and to London to the Royal College of Music at the age of eighteen on an open scholarship. As a person, Howells deeply deplored war and violence. His writings show the deep and sometimes overriding sense of anxiety he experienced both during and after the Second World War – in fact, his family were bombed out of their home in September of 1940, just a year before tonight’s anthem was composed. The set of anthems, of which ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ is the first, was originally entitled ‘In Time of War’.

Of course, there is little peace in present-day Jerusalem.  The pictures and reports of war and violence are all too present. Wounds are deep. In 2012, a report was published by the Anglican Consultative Council. Entitled ‘Land of Promise?’ it explores Christian attitudes to the Holy Land. It also explores the political realities of Israel’s relationships with its neighbours, the occupied territories, new settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Amongst the many affirmations set out in the report, the first given is that ‘God is equally concerned for all peoples and all lands.’ In his Easter Day sermon of 2012, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams spoke of the land that Jesus knew and the city outside whose walls he was crucified. He said: “If we believe in a God who acts, we have to bring together people from both sides and challenge them to discover empathy and mutual commitment….We have to prod and nag and encourage the religious leadership in the Holy Land on all sides to speak as if they believed in a God who acts, not only a God who endorses their version of reality. We have to pray, to pray for wisdom and strength and endurance for all who are hungry for peace and justice, pray that people will go on looking for a truly shared future…’. The Psalmist asks us to “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper who love you.” But how, asked Archbishop Williams, among injured, embittered people, can we find a way to peace? His sermon continues: “The Psalmist says, “Pray.” Where a practical observer might expect that the road to peace lies by way of negotiation, bargains, compromise, and deal-cutting, the psalm reminds us, “Pray.”” Rowan Williams suggests here that prayer lays the roadbed on the journey towards peace. But he is under no illusions as to the length of the journey or the difficulty of its undertaking and writes that only the most arduous of prayers befits the work of peace. As an example, he says one measure of peace is our willingness to swallow hard and accept our complicity in ways of living, talking, arguing, politicking, that injure our sisters and brothers. Peace will come only through giving. While he says he can’t tell someone else to spill their heart’s blood to offer reconciliation to their enemies as he hasn’t felt their suffering, doesn’t know their disappointment and their betrayal, he reminds his listeners and readers that he can stand up for the truth, and remind us how the way of peace was prepared for us by Jesus, who “…called us to follow after him and promised us immeasurable riches and laid a path to true peace.” The Psalmist blessed Jerusalem and asked us to pray for it because in it stood the Temple, and, as Rowan Williams says “it is our love and forgiveness for one another that builds up and supports the walls of that holy house.” Herbert Howells expressed this need for prayer through his musical setting of the psalm text.

So we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, both through our own prayers and joined in prayer with others around the world. We are not Christians in isolation. We pray alone, we pray in different countries of the world and we pray together as world-wide pilgrims on our Lenten journeys and our life journeys. We know we can make the journey to the Cross, because we know in sure and certain faith that Christ has gone there for us already in love. We are not alone in our Lenten pilgrimage nor in our earthly pilgrimage – God is both with us and for us, as we are encouraged to ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for they shall prosper that love thee.’ For just as the ancient Jews renew and celebrate the Lord’s kingship in their autumn festival, so we renew and celebrate our lives together this Lent. We do so through prayer, poetry and music, in pilgrimage with Christ, as he leads us to the Cross. We who choose to accept this Lenten pilgrimage of prayer and love shall prosper.


Jesus and the Holy City – New Testament perspectives, P W L Walker, William B Erdmans Publishing Company, Cambridge,1996

The Psalms, John Eaton, Continuum Publishing Group, London, 2005

Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land, Norman Wareham and Jill Gill, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1996

In the steps of Jesus, Peter Walker, Lion Hudson, Oxford, 2009

Land of Promise?, A report from the Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns, The Anglican Consultative Council, London 2012