The Garden of Gethsemane

If you’ve been to Israel, you know that there’s no place in the world quite like it. Jerusalem was one of my favorite parts of our visit. Going to Jerusalem feels a little like going to the top of the world, because since the world began this little patch of land has been right at the center of the action.

Just to the East of the Temple Mount is the Mount of Olives, a very significant little hilltop. Many believe that it was there that Jesus ascended into heaven (although the gospels are unclear on the exact location), and Zechariah 14:4 prophesies that Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives and split it in two on the “day of the Lord.”

If you stand on the Mount of Olives and look down in the valley in between there and the Temple Mount, you will see a grove of olive trees. Olive trees are  not an uncommon sight around Jerusalem, but this particular grove of trees is very special. This is the garden of Gethsemane.

Because of the many centuries that have passed and the fact that there are so many “olive gardens” around, it is difficult to know the exact spot described in the gospels where Jesus went and prayed before his arrest. But we can be confident that the spot was very near the garden site identified today. Our group gathered in a fenced-in area adjacent to the traditional Gethsemane spot to pray and reflect. 

As I looked around at the trees, it was very easy to imagine Jesus kneeling
next to one of them, grasping the knobby, porous and almost perforated trunk, crying out to God to take the cup of suffering from him. How striking the contrast between the peace of such a beautiful place and the anguish that Christ felt as he prepared to bear the weight of sin.

The fascinating thing about the word Gethsemane is that it actually means “olive press.” Because olives were (and still are) such an important in Israel, it made sense to have an olive press near the place where the olives were grown. After the olives are harvested, they are taken into a building or cave where they are crushed to a pulp with a stone wheel and then placed into large, circular bag-like baskets. The baskets are then stacked up and pressed by a large beam that can be attached to varying stone weights, thus extracting the oil from them. The first press is the purest and most precious oil, and each subsequent press is of lower quality. While olive oil is used for cooking and other general use, it specifically prescribed for use in worship in the Old Testament. Consecrated oil was used for anointing, for incense, and for lighting the lamps that burned in God’s house.

Here’s the kicker: Do you know how many times they press olives? Three. Do you know how many times Jesus went away to pray in the garden? Three. You see, Jesus wasn’t praying in a random place outside the city before he went to the cross. God in his sovereignty was giving us another picture of what Jesus was about to do through his death: be utterly crushed on our behalf so that the anointing of God could rest on us, so that the incense of our prayers could be heard, so that the light of the gospel could shine on us.

Jesus struggled over the weight of the crushing as it pressed upon him, but he chose it willingly. He submitted to the Father’s will to be crushed for the glory of God to be shown in salvation. As I stood there in the garden I marveled at the weight of standing in this place. If you look up towards the Temple Mount you can see the East gate where the soldiers would have come with torches to arrest him. It’s no surprise that they found Jesus praying there, or that he knew when they were coming to get him. He could easily see them coming down the hill to find him. He had time to escape, and certainly could have if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He was pressed until nothing was left.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5

The Western Wall

As I started to unpack in an earlier post, my recent trip to Israel was nothing short of amazing and at the same time totally overwhelming. When I was preparing to go on the trip, a lot of people told me about the powerful emotions they experienced in various places. Everyone had their favorite place, but most of them said seeing the tomb was their most impactful experience. Having no context for visiting such a monumental place, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and tried not to think about what I would feel.

You should know that I’m not a super emotional person; I rarely cry, and my highs aren’t super high and my lows aren’t that low (this great in some ways, awful in others). But I also have this weird thing that I do internally when I am about to experience something that could be exciting. For some reason, when I am looking forward to something I try to push down my emotions as much as possible so I don’t set myself up for disappointment. I know it’s messed up, but it’s been my modus operandi for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure how I got into the habit, but I do know that my efforts quite often backfire: I tend miss out on feeling anything significant because I have suppressed feelings so far down in order to play it safe. Like the dog hiding a bone so well even he can’t find it, it’s a distorted way to try to manage my own expectations. There was a little of that going on in this situation.

As we toured the sites in Israel, I quickly realized that even though I didn’t know what to expect, my actual capacity for being impacted by the things I was experiencing was extremely limited. When you stand in front of several fire hydrants a day to get a drink, it’s hard to take in the exact characteristics of the water from each. Most of the time I was thoughtful, observant and reflective, just trying to take everything in so I could sit and soak in the impact later. Except at the Wester Wall.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is one of the most intense places in the world. It is as if the ancient rocks are nervously looking around because of the tension they feel. Herod the Great (who rebuilt the temple around 40 BC) had the brilliant insight that the topography of a mountain is not ideal for supporting huge stone structures. So he essentially surrounded the mountain with a giant retaining wall and built a flat courtyard on top for the temple buildings. This platform is what is known as the Temple Mount.

When the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the temple in 70 AD, the temple buildings were destroyed but the structure that supported the temple (retaining wall and courtyard) were left intact. In later years Muslim occupants of Jerusalem built huge structures on this mountain, one a mosque and another a shrine that is the most prominent feature in any photograph of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock. The top of the Temple Mount is thus owned by Israel and controlled exclusively by Muslims. That pretty much sums it up.

You have likely seen pictures of people praying at the Wester Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. Devout Jews from all over the world travel there to see, touch, and pray next to the only standing rocks that were closest in proximity to the temple (and thus the Holy of Holies). Not the wall of the temple itself, but the wall of the temple mount that is nearest to where the temple probably  stood. It is a visceral place. You can hear praying, singing, and yes, even wailing. Many people write down prayers on little slips of paper and stick them into the cracks of the wall.

So there I was, plain old emotionally-suppressed me, walking up to this wall when I was overcome with emotion. I still don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the collective feeling of longing that hung palpably in the air around me. Maybe it was the density of hundreds of years of pilgrims having stood in that spot before me. Maybe it was the tragic sense of futility in the midst of the most extreme devotion. I stood there at the wall, put my hand on the stone, worn smooth by millions of hands, and hot tears formed in my eyes. I was at a loss as to what to say, but I managed to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the only thing that seemed appropriate in that moment.

It was hard to walk away from there. After lingering for a while in the sacred air, I walked up the ramp to rejoin the group. I’m still puzzled about why it hit me so hard. Jesus didn’t (“according to tradition”) heal someone in that spot. There was no specifically historical reason to feel impacted. Just the sheer weight of it all coming crashing down in an instant. I think the feeling that stands out the most is gratitude. I’m grateful I got to stand there in such a special place and pray a few less-than-adequate prayers. Some people dream their whole lives to do that. But I’m grateful mostly for the living hope that I have in a living God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. I’m grateful that God is faithful to his promises and has taken up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. I’m grateful that he hears our prayers and is our refuge and strength.