I set out to spend the day on the Mount of Olives, a hill that sloped down to the Lion’s Gate, the east entrance, and offered a panoramic view of the old city and a spectacular view of the Temple Mount and Mosque with the Golden Dome.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem from Bethany he came down this hill and entered the East Gate which the prophets has was the Gate the Messiah would come through riding a donkey (since the Jewish people are still awaiting the Messiah, the Muslims have sealed this gate so there will be no easy entry). And after the last Supper, Jesus prayed the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Judas kissed him on the cheek and he was arrested. And on the Mount of Olives, Jesus ascended into heaven.
I have wondered if the Mount of Olives was a special place to Jesus beyond the times listed in the Bible. From the summit of the hill, there is an extraordinary view of the old city and especially of the Temple Mount and what would then have been a glorious temple. As I sat at the top of the Mount, I imagined Jesus sitting up here and looking out at a city that was dear to his heart and the temple that was central to his religion and people. As Bethany is just on the other side of the hill, he could easily have come to stay at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ home and then slip away to come prayer and sit at the top of this hill.
In any case, I imagined that it would be a special place for me and so I looked forward to this day. (To read more, click read more below)
When I set out for the Mount of Olives I had one goal: to sit under an olive tree. The travel guidebook had noted - perhaps joked - that there were more churches than olive trees. I was forewarned. It was Sunday and so most of the churches would be closed to the public, but this was okay. I wanted to be with the land, the olive trees and gaze on Jerusalem from a distance. Surely I could find a nice olive tree to sit against.
To get to the Mount I needed to get a bus in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem. Everyone assured me it was okay as there were Israeli police all around. And so it was. Everyone was simply going about their lives and with a little effort I found the bus that took me up and up to the Mount.
After taking time to behold the city, I took in the immensity of the Jewish graveyard. Much of the mount is covered with thousands upon thousands of Jewish tombs, reminding me of Arlington Cemetery Virginia. It is sacred land to the Jews and being buried on this hill facing the temple mount is sought because when the Messiah comes, all buried here will be resurrected.
As I continued past the cemetery and headed down the hill, I found myself on a paved road with high walls on all sides. No olive trees. No grass. I realized that the churches have quartered off the olive groves, and the trees themselves are owned by the different faiths. Stone walls had been erected around the church properties and all doors were shut, barring entrance. Not a tree or blade of grass was visible to me.
As I reached the bottom of the mount having the view of high walls the whole way, it is safe to say I felt disappointed. The Garden of Gethsemane gateway was open and so I walked around a small garden that was well kept and had a huge iron fence around it allowing no admission. There was not even a place to sit and view the garden from a distance. I had started my day with a simple desire to sit against an olive tree and I felt quite thwarted. It was very hot and a long walk to get anywhere else. I stood for quite a few moments, stumped. I wasn’t sure what to do next.
I took out my guidebook and read about a small café near the garden and so headed back up the Mount of Olives road. There, tucked away was a café up a steep flight of stairs. I ordered a cool drink and sat down. To my right, I could see the tops of olive trees in a grove just over a stone wall and decided that this was good enough. It was an open air café and had a canopy which proved invaluable as a few minutes later it began pouring rain.
I knew that later in the afternoon a couple churches on the hill would open the gates to their sanctuaries. So when the time came to move on the skies were clear and I headed back up the steep paved walkway and found a door open with a sign identifying the place as Dominus Flevit. I stepped inside and found to my great pleasure a small olive grove. I found a seat at the base of an olive tree and beheld the other twisted, ancient and flowering olive trees on the hills with a view of the old city of Jerusalem just beyond them.
As I sat there I thought: the vision of Jerusalem is one of peace. Shalom. Peace be with you. And yet peace seems to always be the carrot, just out of reach. I thought of the olive tree I was sitting against. Extending an olive branch is extending peace, a truce, a way of uniting rather than dividing.
And so, sitting against this olive tree, I was leaning against a living symbol of Peace. Here on this Mount I suddenly felt peaceful, at peace. The tumult of the city at a distance. I felt the breeze across my face, spread out my legs on the soft grass and leaned against an ancient wondrous tree. The one I had chosen had four trunks coming from a central trunk that had been hollowed. Its limbs twisted and reached upwards and the green foliage shaded and held me.
After I had sat for some time, I thought I would pay a visit to the small church connected to this lovely orchard and grounds. I turned a corner and beheld a church that was more round than square. As I stepped inside I was met by a mixture of grandness and simplicity. It was sparse in decoration and yet every stone, every column seemed meticulously and lovingly placed. There were perhaps 50 wooden folding chairs that made up the pews, filling the church. The simplicity of it drew me in.
There were four frescoes over the four arches that made the body of the church. The fresco across from the entrance immediately caught my attention. It was of three women. The one in the center could be immediately identified as the Blessed Mother. Who were the other two? After taking in the rest of the images, I went to find the caretaker of the grounds and ask him my questions. He was watering some roses when I approached.
He said the three women are the Three Marys who were at the tomb. I said one of them has a child at her side. I asked if that could be Elizabeth who is depicted with John the Baptist. No, he said, it is the Three Marys. I said there are legends Mary Magdalene had a child and is this what is being depicted. Maybe, he said. He became noncommittal. He said, perhaps it is just a boy that happened to be there.
I asked who the three men were who were depicted in the fresco opposite the three women. He said: Paul, Peter and James. Ah, I thought: the three patriarchs of the early church and they are placed opposite the three matriarchs. How fanstastic.
On the altar there was a mosaic of a chicken with arms spread and her chicks huddled beneath her wings. I asked him, why a chicken? He quoted a verse of Matthew where Jesus said he was a chicken that would protect and keep his chicks. I had never heard this. Or don’t remember it. The scripture and images of him as a shepherd with sheep is very familiar, but Jesus as a Mother Hen...delightful.
The other two frescoes depicted 1) Jesus’ ride down this hill into Jerusalem on the donkey in what we now call Palm Sunday and 2) the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. These two frescoes, also linked, referenced scripture when Jesus said, and I paraphrase, woe would come to Jerusalem who crucified its prophets.
At this point, I looked for and found a flyer to tell me more about this church. Ah, I smiled and said, but of course, it is a Franciscan church. St. Francis of Assisi. And I thought of his prayer, Make me an instrument of your peace.
Here in this small sanctuary on the Mount of Olives I felt peace. I felt the vision of Jerusalem embodied in this church, in the trees that were in their care and in the beauty of what they created. In Jerusalem I had experienced much feeling, much earnestness, ceremony, longing, grief and devotion in all that was around me. And I realized that I was longing for I was finding here with the olive trees and in the grounds that evoked and embodied the life of St. Francis.
Looking through the window of the altar, I felt this church was built in a way that held a vision of Peace for all, for all religions, for a city that has had such tremendous loss and pain and strife through the centuries. This small church that had only a handful of visitors while I was there for the better part of two hours sits quietly on a hill holding Jerusalem and all people in a prayer of peace.
As I was ready to leave, it began to pour rain again and so I ran back to find shelter in the church. The caretaker of the property and I talked further. A kind and gentle man, I enjoyed our conversation. As the rain subsided, he walked me to the gate. He thanked me for my visit and I said that this sanctuary was a very special place and I was very happy to have spent time with the ‘simple gardener.’
From underneath the olive tree: