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Reclaiming the Symbols of Lent: Garden of Gethsemane

Mark 14:32-42 

I was watching a cooking segment on the Today Show a few weeks ago and a Middle Eastern cook was showing how important olive oil was. She made hummus and used olive oil in the recipe, but then made a big deal about putting it on top of the hummus before serving it. Then, she showed how to season a skillet with olive oil before cooking chicken. She showed how olive oil is good for your skin and smeared it on her face – and then on the hosts’ faces! And she finished her segment by drinking a little glass of olive oil, which she said was great for digestion.

The olive tree is a stout evergreen fruit tree that has been cultivated for thousands of years. It is touted for its longevity and the tenacity with which it remains rooted in the ground. It thrives even in adversity. For example–it can withstand conditions of frost, drought and poor soil. It can typically live for 500 years or move! It has strong, hardy roots that spread wide and long–making the tree hard to topple. 

Of course, olive oil is a staple item in the Middle East. The olive is mentioned 35 times in the Bible and its most important product–olive oil–is mentioned more than 200 times! Olive wood was an important building product. 

If you visit the village of Capernaum beside the Sea of Galilee, you will find an exhibit of ancient olive presses.  These olive presses are formed from basalt rock and have two parts: a base and a grinding wheel. The base is large and round and has a trough carved out in them. The olives were placed in the trough, with the wheel on top. The wheel was also made of heavy stone and was rolled over the olives to extract the oil.

In your imagination, take a moment to picture a stone basin filled with olives being crushed and pressed together and the oil seeping out under the wheel. 

On the night before his death, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. I took a church group there 9 years ago and we walked down from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the kind of walk, even on a solid paved surface, which makes your shins hurt. You know that if you take a wrong step or slip that you may start a fall that you cannot stop, and you will end up at the bottom of the road in a heap. It is steep. I will share some pictures that I took from that trip.

When you get to the bottom, there is a small garden. Some of the gnarly olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are old enough that they could have been there for hundreds–even a thousand or two thousand years. It is not difficult to imagine Jesus choosing this place to pray. According to the gospels, it was a place that Jesus and his disciples customarily visited. It is serene, even today.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”  Mark 14: 32-42

The word Gethsemane is derived from the Aramaic language and means the “place of the olive press”. The story and the name fit as a euphemism for what Jesus must have experienced that night. It must have been a crushing experience to know that he was facing death and want to find some peace and comfort with his closest friends…only to have them fall asleep when he needed them the most. The Gospel of Luke describes his sweat falling to the ground like “drops of blood”. He was being pressed like olives between rocks.  His soul was crushed.

Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane prepares us as readers for the fact that he is not going to escape death. He is not going to use any divine power to change the trajectory of events. Everything will happen as though Jesus was an ordinary human victim.  Like John the Baptist, he will die a gruesome death. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the group is referred to as “the disciples” for the last time until after the resurrection. The three disciples who fall asleep are not just any disciples, though. They are well known to us.

*  Peter (known as the Rock, the one upon whom the church will be built), is the one who will deny Jesus three times. 

            *  James & John are the brothers who have requested the highest places of honor when Jesus comes into his kingdom.

One could easily call these three the best friends Jesus had. These were the friends Jesus specifically chose to accompany him for solace in the worst time of his life. He was literally facing death–in between a rock and a hard place–and they failed to pray and then they fell asleep. But Jesus did not once blame them for their weakness. He still asks them to accompany him when he leaves the Garden.

Can you imagine the crushing feeling Jesus must have had? The weight pressing in on him from every angle? The loneliness and desperation of unanswered prayer?   

This is a theme in the Gospel of Mark. You may remember another story about Jesus and his disciples withdrawing from the crowds. This time a crowd was pressing in on him. The people were crushing him (that is the literal word in the text). So, Jesus and his disciples got on a boat in a lake to withdraw to the other side of the lake.

The writer of Mark wants us to know that Jesus understood what it felt like to be crushed by the weight of the world. 

·       Jesus knew what it was like to have people demand too much of him

·       Jesus understood what it felt like to carry the weight of worry

·       Jesus felt the pain of trying to forgive people

·       He knew what it was like to try to make peace among those who would not let things go

·       He understood the pressures of being the one people came to to resolve their differences

·       He felt things deeply and tried to be a healing presence

·       He knew the pressures and the crush of the world around him

Even when he was facing his own death, he went into the Garden of Gethsemane–the place of the olive press.  A place where stone met stone and olives were pressed into olive oil. 

As a minister, I have been asked many times to anoint someone with oil. This is an ancient practice dating back to Biblical times. Usually anointing is associated with a person seeking healing or someone who is dying, but people can also be anointed when they take on a leadership role. Some people associate anointing with oil as an exclusive rite of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is not. Many Protestants anoint people with oil as a symbolic way to pray for healing or for God’s presence with the person. I remember a very special anointing I led more than 30 years ago. A woman in our congregation was suffering from an unknown illness that was threatening her life. Doctors had been unable to identify the illness and she was growing weaker by the day. She had tried every medical and alternative medicine option–to no avail. She finally asked for her friends to gather in a small chapel in the church and to have a time of prayer and anointing with oil. It was a deeply spiritual gathering, and everyone was moved by the experience. The woman we anointed was not immediately healed from her ailment, but she did experience a sense of peace and the presence of God in a new way. Her physical body did eventually heal, and she is living today. I have also anointed people who were in the dying process and have sensed the peace of God come over them in a very real way.  The crush of life can be soothed by the anointing of oil itself.

Perhaps you have felt the crushing pressure of life. Maybe you’ve wondered why your prayers have been unanswered. It may seem that even your best friends do not always understand your deepest needs. There may be days when you have felt the crushing weight of the world on your shoulders.  If it was not your own life or your own family–it may have been that as you were thinking about the state of affairs of our country or our environment you began to take on this feeling. 

Whatever the case, I want to remind you of this story. Jesus was oppressed in a way you and I may never understand.  He went to a garden called Gethsemane, the place of the olive press, to pray and to contemplate the cross. And in the midst of the crush of the world around him, healing, forgiveness, restoration, peace and love came from him. Enough for us all. Enough for us all.


Resourced Used:

    “The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary” vol. VII.  Abingdon Press.  2015.  “Are you like an Olive?” by Andy McClain.  Nov. 4, 2002.  “Crushed to life – an old sermon” by Glen.  Oct. 14, 2010.   “Gethsemane”  March 27, 2019.  “The Olive Press”  by Bill Crowder.  March 24, 2016.