Saturday, March 31, 2007

Among the Olives

Tomorrow the church remembers Jesus’ strange procession into Jerusalem on the back of a colt. We call it Palm Sunday. We pass out long stringy fronds. We fold them into green crucifixes which will dry and turn brown in the heat of the summer. The scripture reminds us of a joyful time - a public affirmation of Jesus’ identity that infuriated what we used to call “the establishment”. Most strange of all perhaps, we remember Jesus words about stones with voices…

When Jesus had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, "Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, 'The Lord needs it.'" So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, "Why are you untying the colt?" They said, "The Lord needs it." Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

"Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!"

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, order your disciples to stop." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
Luke 19:29-40

Along with the triumph of Palm Sunday, our liturgy remembers the Great Tragedy that is to come. The hosannas of Palm Sunday are changed into the bitter recollections of Passion Sunday…

Jesus came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, "Pray that you may not come into the time of trial." Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, "Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial."

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, "Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?" When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, "Lord, should we strike with the sword?" Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, "No more of this!" And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, "Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!"
Luke 22:39-53

“This is your hour.” Those are terrifying words. A few days before, the hour had belonged to Jesus, so much so that even the stones were prepared to cry out with joy. But the morning of Palms had become the night of the Passion. The hour now belonged to the people who hated Jesus and his radical ministry. In a few hours, the filthy, tortured savior of the world who was with God and who was God would utter a loud cry and breath his last to the sounds of laughter and mockery from many of the same strangers who had cried hosanna. Such is the protean nature of humankind. Such is the steadfast nature of our savior.

The week the church calls “Holy” is full of echoes. Every time I visit it, I hear new ones. This morning, I heard the echo of olives.

The olive tree has been celebrated and referenced in the cultural works of every society. Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The olive tree is surely the richest gift of Heaven". Aldous Huxley wrote: "…I like them all, but especially the olive. For what it symbolizes, first of all, peace with its leaves and joy with its golden oil." Federico Garcia Lorca wrote: "Angels with long braids and hearts of olive oil." Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero's Cell, "The entire Mediterranean seems to rise out of the sour, pungent taste of black olives between the teeth. A taste older than meat or wine, a taste as old as cold water. Only the sea itself seems as ancient a part of the region as the olive and its oil, that like no other products of nature, have shaped civilizations from remotest antiquity to the present."
The Olive Tree World

When Jesus needed courage, he went to the Mount of Olives to pray. He seemed to find both peace and strength in the company of their ancient healing branches. I am reminded of the Druids who found God in the oak trees of old Britain before the Christians came and “civilized” them. This is strange business - mystical trees, healing oil, leaves of victory and peace. It sounds a little magical, a little to Wiccan for our contemporary taste – as if Jesus were some sort of witch who looked for guidance in the mysterious powers of nature.

I’m not sure that is the lesson of Olivet, but there is no question that Jesus consecrated this ancient place with both his prayers and his blood. In a week of violence and pain, he found himself returning to a place where “the richest gift of Heaven” blossomed and bore fruit.

Deep within the madness of Holy Week, the trees of Olivet grow like a secret hiding place. We may not be able to travel to Gethsemane and walk the Via Dolorosa as Jesus did, but in our own solitude and contemplation, we can take a moment to seek God's will among the olives. Like Jesus, we can find strength in their limbs and peace in their shade. We can find healing in their oil. We can kneel on the consecrated ground where Christ knelt and give our fondest hopes and our greatest fears to God. Among the olives, there is comfort in knowing that an ancient and healing God is at work in our lives, continuing the sometimes painful work of creation and redemption, even in the midst of violence and betrayal.

Here amid the olives, as the terror of Friday morning approaches, as the terror of our own passion haunts us with fear and anxiety, we can taste the fruit of the olive and pray with Jesus…

Thy will be done.

May God grant us the courage to walk with Christ in the coming week, and all the days and nights of our lives.



  1. And it is very cool that olive oil is used in the holy chrism too...
    <3 mpj

  2. Welcome to blogdom, Pennsy, and thanks for your poetic comments on Palm Sunday.

    What I still don't get is why the people who cheered their king-on-a-donkey later shouted for his crucifixion.

    Dang! I started a blog, but it has been languishing somewhere in cyberspace, I'm no longer sure even where.