Thursday, March 21, 2013

Palm Sunday: The Sacred Geography of Lent Part VI (Gethsemane & the Mount of Olives)

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. In the sacred geography of Lent, we are once again leaving the desert to come to the vicinity of Jerusalem. In the two Gospel readings proclaimed this Sunday, the Mount of Olives will be featured in several key events.
Jerusalem in the time of Jesus
The Mount of Olives (also called Olivet) is close by to the city of Jerusalem. It is actually a series of hills and in Jesus’ time filled with olive trees, hence its name. There are many significant features or events associated with the Mount of Olives. An ancient Jewish cemetery is there with the graves of some of the Old Testament prophets. The Mount of Olives is first mentioned in the Bible in connection with King David's flight from Absalom, his rebellious son: "And David went up by the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went up." (II Samuel 15:30) From the Mount of Olives, Jesus will also weeps over the rebellious city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:37, 41).
In the final battle of good and evil, the Prophet Zechariah prophesies: "On that day the Lord’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is opposite Jerusalem to the east." (14:4) This is interpreted that the Messiah will stand on the Mount of Olives on the Last Day. It is on the Mount of Olives that the Risen Jesus ascends to heaven, promising to return. (Acts 1:9-12)
It is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus approaches Jerusalem on an ass to triumphantly enter the City which is commemorated this Sunday in the Opening Procession of Mass. Also, Jesus often stayed on the Mount of Olives, and prayed there: the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his Crucifixion is located at the foot of Olivet.
An Olive Tree in Gethsemane
The Mount of olives is, of course, the place of olives. I reflect upon all the associations with  olives, or more specifically, with olive oil in the Scriptures. Olive oil is food; it was used for sacrifice in the Temple; it was used for the oil lamps to light  home and  Temple; it was used for medicine in Jesus time (and so is associated with healing and in the Sacrament of the Sick); it was used in anointing (consecrating) kings and priests; it is a sign of the Holy Spirit (thus used in the Sacrament of Confirmation and of Ordination).
All these associations with anointing with olive oil point to the identity of Christ (meaning the Messiah, the "Anointed One"): He is our Food, our Sacrifice, our Light, our Healing, our Anointing and the Giver of the Holy Spirit. We might even compare Christ to the olive tree: fruitful, evergreen, source of nourishment and healing. The Psalmist says:
                                                            "But I am like an olive tree
                                                                 flourishing in the house of God;
                                                            I trust in God’s unfailing love
                                                                for ever and ever." (Ps. 52:8)
Returning to this Sunday, as mentioned, it is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus enters Jerusalem. The crowds proclaim: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" (Luke 19:8) A king is supposed to be an Anointed One. The crowd lay palm branches before Jesus, the palm branch being a sign of victory. Ironically, the palm branch will also become a sign of martyrdom in the Church’s symbols.
On Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday, the Scripture Readings after the blessing and procession of palms quickly goes from triumph to impending suffering. The Psalm response, uttered by Jesus on the Cross, laments: " My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Psalm 22) I enjoy whenever everything is going well in life–who doesn’t? But circumstances can change quickly in life and the challenge of our faith-life is to remain faithful to God, even in our suffering. Jesus becomes our example in this, even experiencing our times in life when we feel abandoned by God.
We will hear this Sunday how Jesus returns to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper, to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The name "Gethsemane" means "olive press," i.e. a place where olives are crushed by a large stone in order to extract their oil. The heavy stone exerts pressure upon the olives, which "bleed forth" their precious oil.
An Olive press

Many have pointed out the great weight upon Jesus praying in Gethsemane as he faced suffering for the whole world. He is shaken and crushed, as the Prophet Isaiah prophesied about him:
                                                  "But he was pierced for our transgressions,
                                                      he was crushed for our iniquities;
                                                  the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
                                                     and by his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)
He is indeed the Messiah, the Anointed One, yet his anointing comes at a heavy cost. I think sometimes of the sacrifices we must make to fulfill our vocation or role in life. We are called Christian (which means "little anointed one"), but that doesn’t exempt us from suffering at times.
We may visit Gethsemane many times, i.e. a place where we must face our own crises with prayer, seeking like Christ to do God’s will. He prayed in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering might pass him over, but he was willing to do God’s will even if he was not spared. I believe we all have these times when we are called to be martyrs: to be faithful to Christ even if it means suffering.
Our comfort can be that if we are forced into Gethsemane by crisis, we can hope that Christ will be there with us. Our faith tells us he is, even when we cry as he did, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Like knowing that Christ is in every desert, we can also have trust that he is in every moment of prayer in the midst of suffering. Again, the prophet Isaiah says about the Messiah: He will give the people "the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified" (Isaiah 61:3). I need to remember that Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, but at the summit, on the same Mount, is where Jesus ascends victorious into heaven.
Down shadowy lanes, across strange streams
Bridged over by our broken dreams;
Behind the misty caps of years,
Beyond the great salt fount of tears,
The garden lies. Strive as you may,
You cannot miss it in your way.
All paths that have been, or shall be,
Pass somewhere through Gethsemane.
All those who journey, soon or late,
Must pass within the garden’s gate;
Must kneel alone in darkness there,
And battle with some fierce despair.
God pity those who cannot say,
‘Not mine but thine,’ who only pray,
‘Let this cup pass,’ and cannot see
The purpose in Gethsemane.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox