There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where our dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
Written by Cecil Frances Alexander as one of the Hymns for Little Children in 1848, this hymn, so familiar to me from my youth, became more famous when it was included in the Appendix of the very first Hymns Ancient and Modern, published twenty years later. When I was one of the Little Children it always intrigued me. Why would a hill need a city wall? And what did it mean for it to be without one? It took a while, a greater understanding of vocabulary, and encountering churches such as St Botolph without Aldgate (in London although just without the ‘City’) to understand what it meant. We don’t use the word to mean ‘outside’ any more – and indeed, I’ve just found an updated version of the hymn that replaces ‘without’ with ‘outside’. Pity. For the Scottish, the variant ‘outwith’ is still in common parlance, although, despite nine months living and working there, I have heard it used more often since being outwith Scotland.
Today we head without the city walls, never to return. We are, following yesterday’s instruction, following the white horse. Its rider looks over his shoulder to check we are following – and the more I look, the more people I see returning our regular scrutiny. The man on the other white horse, for example, is gazing towards us, though I can’t for the life of me work out what he might be thinking. His horse, on the other hand, clearly has his eye on his brown companion. Impatience? Admiration? I’m sorry, I don’t speak Horse.
Why are we leaving the city? There is a historical reason. The Romans didn’t like dead bodies, and didn’t want them inside the city – and Jerusalem was part of the Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect, after all, and even 33 years before the events we are witnessing you may recall that, just before Christ’s birth, ‘it came to pass… that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’ (Luke 2:1). That was the whole Roman world, of course. Because the Romans didn’t like dead bodies, their deceased were buried without the city walls. As an illustration, the catacombs I have visited most often are at the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura – St Agnes without the Walls. And when St Peter was buried, it would have been in a necropolis next to the Circus of Nero (where he was executed), on a hill just outside the walls of ancient Rome. When they came to build the first St Peter’s in the fourth century, they sliced off the top of the hill so that they could build a church directly over what they believed (and still believe) to be the exact spot. Now, if they didn’t like dead bodies within the city walls, they would also have to head without for executions.
Not only is the green hill ‘without a city wall’, it is also, like St Botolph without Ludgate, without one of the city gates. Of course, if there’s a wall, there must be gates, and it is through one of them that the man on the first white horse is passing. We can see the track heading off into the distance towards the blue hills you might remember from Lent 4, echoed by the curve of the trumpet from Lent 6. But is this the green hill far away that we can see rising up to the right of the track? I don’t think so: there is no one about – no activity, no preparation, nothing. So I suspect we are not going that way. Head through the gate, and turn right. Follow that horse.