The word “wall” comes from the Old English weall & Anglian wall meaning “rampart, dike, earthwork” (natural as well as man-made), “dam, cliff, rocky shore,” also “defensive fortification around a city, side of a building.” It comes from an adaption of the Latin word vallum meaning “wall, rampart, row or line of stakes,” apparently a collective form of vallus “stake.”
Curiously in modern languages English uses one word where many languages have two, such as German Mauer “outer wall of a town, fortress, etc.,” used also in reference to the former Berlin Wall, and wand “partition wall within a building” in Italian muro/parete, Irish mur/fraig, Lithuanian mūras/siena, etc.). In English, we use one word to represent both the defensive wall intended to keep others out, and the wall that divides space to make it more useful.
The dominant way in which the word wall is used these days in our culture is in cries to “build the wall!” and in the conviction of others that a wall is not needed. Etymologically speaking we seem to be unable to distinguish between our need to keep others out to keep ourselves safe and to use our space wisely and creatively (the two meanings of the word).
Throughout the Bible, there are many walls, usually city gates intended to keep others out. This was the most common form of protection in the ancient world. We hear of Joshua by God’s power pulling down the walls of Jericho when the Israelites enter into the Promised Land. We hear of Nehemiah commissioned to rebuild the city walls of Jerusalem when the people return home there from the Exile in Babylon. We also hear of the walls in the New Jerusalem, the metaphor of what the world will become when God who lives above, comes to live on earth within creation. When Earth and heaven are one. It too is a city with gates and walls, but the gates are never shut, as there is no need for a defensive sense of wall. In the new Jerusalem, the wall exists to define what is the city and isn’t.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
Where God is present there is no need for walls, or light. Things are different. Lives are transformed. Relationships are clear.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation
- How do you think of walls? as defensive or creative?
- Advent is the season of the advent, or coming of the New Jerusalem – God is on the way! My colleague Rev. Talitha Amadea Aho wrote new words to an old Christmas song that riff on the coming of God and our need to build and prepare for this new life. What and what are you building to prepare for that?
- Words matter. They can be used as powerful political tools. Hurtful weapons. And creatively constructive. What words are you finding you need to reclaim for yourself? How will you do that?