“Urbs Ierusalem Beata”: The Hymn for Evening Prayer for the Dedication of a Church
Urbs beata Jerusalem
dicta pacis visio
quae construitur in caelis
vivis ex lapidibus
et angelis coronata
ut sponsata comite.
Nova veniens e coelo
Praeparata, ut sponsata,
Plateae et muri ejus
ex auro purissimo.
Portae nitent margaritis,
et virtute meritorum
omnis qui ob Christi nomen
hic in mundo premitur.
suis coaptantur locis,
per manus artificis,
Blessèd City, heavenly Salem,
Vision dear of peace and love,
Who, of living stones upbuilded,
Art the joy of heaven above,
And, with angel cohorts circled,
As a bride to earth dost move!
From celestial realms descending,
Bridal glory round her shed,
To his presence, deck with jewels,
By her Lord shall she be led:
All her streets and all her bulwarks,
Of pure gold are fashionèd.
Bright with pearls her portals glitter,
They are open evermore;
And, by virtue of his merits,
Thither faithful souls may soar,
Who for Christ’s dear name in this world
Pain and tribulation bore.
Many a blow and biting sculpture
Fashioned well those stones elect,
In their places now compacted
By the heavenly Architect,
Who therewith hath willed for ever
That his palace should be decked.
-trans. John Mason Neale
The hymn “Urbs Ierusalem beata” (Blessed city, Jerusalem), by an unknown author, is from the eighth or ninth century at the latest. The Liturgy of the Hours as revised by Pope Paul VI, consistent with the tradition, has assigned it to Evening Prayer for the anniversary of the dedication of a church. In the manuscripts, it is found in the Vatican, Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, Premonstratensian, and Dominican breviaries.
The “Urbs Ierusalem beata” is one of the hymns that were greatly revised in 1632 by a commission under the direction of Pope Urban VIII, a humanist pope, in order for the hymns to reflect the language, forms, and meters of classical Latin rather than Christian Latin. The original versions of this and the other hymns of the Office were restored to the Liturgy of the Hours under the direction of Pope Paul VI after Vatican II.
This hymn is remarkable for its theology of the Church as the Bride of Christ and what it means for the Church to be built of living stones, the Christian faithful. The mystery of being Church is repeated throughout the hymn in a manner that is very much tied to both the sacred scriptures and to the movements of the Christian soul.
The hymn begins with the image of the Church as the new and heavenly Jerusalem, the very vision of peace itself—built of living stones, surrounded by angels, and beautiful as a bride adorned to meet her husband. The whole of chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation is summarized:
I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride prepared to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice cry out: “This is God’s dwelling among men.” . . . “Come, I will show you the woman who is the bride of the Lamb.” He carried me away in spirit to the top of a very high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. The city had the radiance of a precious jewel that sparkled like a diamond. Its wall, massive and high, had twelve gates at which twelve angels were stationed. . . . I saw no temple in the city. The Lord, God the Almighty, is its temple—he and the Lamb. (Rv 21:2–3a, 9b–12, 22)
John sees the New Jerusalem by Johann Sadeler, 1579. Photo credit: rijksmuseum.nl
The second verse proceeds deeper into the theme of the Church as the mystical bridal chamber of the Son of God. The Church is seen as an intact virgin joined to the Lord and as a New City coming down from heaven whose squares and walls are of the purest gold, again a reference to Revelation 21: “The streets of the city were of pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rv 21:21). One can hardly make all of these references to the Book of Revelation without feeling the great truth of the church building as a place where heaven itself is made present and where the liturgy done there joins us to the very worship of God that takes place in the heavenly Kingdom. Moreover, the entrance antiphon for the Common of the Dedication of a Church, Genesis 28:17, itself comes to mind: “Terribilis est locus iste: hic domus Dei est, et porta caeli: et vocabitur aula Dei” (This is an awesome place. It is the house of God and the gate of heaven and will be called dwelling place of God). Then there is also the psalm verse that follows this antiphon (Ps 84:2): “Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! Concupiscit et deficit anima mea in atria Domini” (How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God of Hosts! My soul longs for the courts of the Lord).
The third verse carries the theme of the New Jerusalem further and speaks of how the pearly gates stand open to those who bore tribulation in this life for the name of Christ—“The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each made of a single pearl” (Rv 21:21). This tribulation, though, leads us on to the strength of the Christian who is judged worthy to serve as a living stone for God’s temple in verse four of the hymn.
There, the living stones have been fitted to their places and polished by nothing less than striking and all that accompanies the afflictions of the saints. But this is done by the divine and wise Architect who created them in the first place. As any sculptor knows, the image emerges from the stone only as what does not belong to that image is chipped away. It is quite the same with the image of God emerging in us, and in this manner we are fitted as living stones for the temple in which God is going to dwell. Christ, however, is really the one who is the stone living and precious in God’s eyes—but to whom we are joined—as 1 Peter 2:5–6 teaches: “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but approved, nonetheless, and precious in God’s eyes. You too are living stones, built as an edifice of spirit, into a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Fulfilled is what we read in the Letter to the Ephesians:
This means that you are strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God. You form a building which rises on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is fitted together and takes shape as a holy temple in the Lord; in him you are being built into this temple, to become a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19–22)
To truly appreciate all that this hymn contains, one final scriptural reference presents itself:
You have not drawn near to an untouchable mountain and a blazing fire, nor gloomy darkness and storm and trumpet blast, nor a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that they be not addressed to them . . . No, you have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels in festal gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirit of just men made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood which speaks more eloquently than that of Abel. (Heb 12:18–19, 22–24)
Finally, the hymn concludes in the customary way with the doxology to the Most Blessed Trinity.