Thoughts from my Travels to Israel-Palestine

-Rev. Jane Siebert

This is the hymn that was flowing through me as we approached the garden of Olive trees at the Mount of Olives last month:

 “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there. None other has ever known…”

With the crowds of people, it was hard to “tarry there”, but we hit a lull in visitors, and I was able to sit on a bench and feel the beauty, history and weight of the garden with the ancient olive trees.  They say the roots of these trees may be 2300 years old, which offers a connection to the many times Christ came here to pray.

In the Gospel of Luke we read:

He 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.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground. When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief.

-Luke  22:39-45

Even the ancient olive trees tell the story of the battles and history of this place and others like it in our journey around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Masada, Galilee, the Jordan River.

Before the birth of Christ BCE 1056 It was recorded that olives were growing on this place we call The Garden of Gethsemane (Gethsemane means “olive press”).

AD/CE 30 We know Jesus and his followers frequently gravitated to the Garden of Gethsemane. And it is recorded this is where he was arrested.

AD/CE 70 Jerusalem was sieged by the Romans and it is possible the existing olive trees were destroyed or damaged or perhaps cut down to the ground just as the Jewish temple was destroyed.

AD/CE 333 – 384  Writings from different pilgrims describe the site with olive trees growing on the Mount of Olives

AD/CE 379 A church was built there during the epoque of Constantine’s Holy Empire

AD/CE 614 The church was destroyed by the Persians

AD/CE 749 The church remains were further destroyed by the Galilee earthquakes: “the ground opened up and many people died”.

AD/CE 1096 – 1291 During the Crusades a second church was built.

Around AD/CE 1345 That church was abandoned. 

AD/CE 1632 Franciscan Friar writes about Gethsemane being full of very old olive trees.

AD/CE 1644 Bernardina Surio writes that nine olive trees were present.

AD/CE 1674 Father Michel Nau, states that there remain eight fortunate trees that where there at the time of the Savior.

AD/CE 1919 – 1924 Church of all Nations was built by 16 nations.

The picture on the cover of your bulletin shows the remaining olive trees, some have split and look like two trees.

Then the controversy continues as science and religion collide about how old these trees really are. Carbon dating in 1982 The University of California tested root material and the results indicated that some of the root wood was dated at 2300 years old, placing the origin around 318BC, thus the same roots connected to the olive trees of Jesus time.  In 2014 the National Research Council of Italy refuted the notion that they might be the very same trees that were present at the time of Jesus, claiming they were 800-900 years old based on samples taken from the oldest portions of the trunks. Controversies surround all the locations of holy sites throughout the Holy Land.

One of the brochures I picked up puts it plainly:

“What is a holy place?  It is not, actually, the place where Jesus walked. It is: *where the church venerates a mystery of Christ’s life. A place sanctified by the prayers of the Faithful.” 

And that is why a trip to the Holy Land is sacred to many. It is the feelings, not the contested history. This drew me to question when we look at our Gospel stories do we look at the roots that go back to the time of Jesus walking on this earth or do we simply look at with current eyes and study the bark, that which we can see? Both have a story, and it is the same story from different perspectives, but sometimes they conflict. That doesn’t lessen the value or purpose of the original telling of the stories that were then recorded in the scripture.  We need to look with “both/and” eyes and hearts.

I go into this because this is indicative of the arguments surrounding all the sites we visited and how one can get lost in the historical literal approach rather than (for me) the more important approach of the remembrance of what happened here centuries ago, feeling the Lord’s pain and agony as he approached his horrific death being nailed to a cross that he had carried through the streets of Jerusalem in what is now laid out as the Via Dolorosa.  The stages of the cross are replicated around the world.  There is one in a Catholic retreat center in Wichita.  It is powerful to walk as it seems one is walking with Jesus on this lonely, painful path, which is what Via Dolorosa means.  We know though, he was never alone, just as we never are alone.  God lived in and through Jesus and together they carried that cross and together God carries our crosses with us arm in arm and hand in hand.

I have this little cross that I was given as a child, with tiny grains of sand and I remember the card with it stating this was the sand that Jesus walked on.  I treasured it. I still do for the memories it evokes. This connection was very important to me. And just as my childhood faith has changed so the importance of these grains of sand have changed.  It is not the exact recording of the life of Jesus in our scriptures that holds the veneration and truth.  I do not question the facts of the stories of Jesus life in the words of the Gospel, but I cherish the Truth in them.  There is value in the roots in order to feel the bark.

The more I study the scriptures the more things I learn about the changes that were made over the early centuries. Things added to make them more astounding and connect them with the Old Testament. Things are left out, actions of women are left out, and simple names have been changed. And we continue to have new translations, trying to get it all “right”.  

Does “right” matter?  Stories were written and broken down and built up again, just like the church and garden at Gethsemane.  Until we have what we have today, a beautiful, sacred garden with huge angling olive trees that take us back to that time in the garden where Jesus wept and prayed and accepted what lay ahead because God was with him and in him and his Divinity and his Humanity were becoming one.  The roots are connected and truth within them is still evident today.

As I sat in this church of nations, hearing words from a local Catholic priest that I could not understand, with visitors milling around coming in and out and a group up front worshipping, a great sadness came over me and tears streamed down my face.  The words formed in my mind and heart, “Oh Jesus, I am so sorry.  Look what we have done. What have we made of the gift you gave us and continue to give us.  What has happened to Christianity that I am sometimes ashamed to be called a Christian?”  

As I later walked out of the church with my roommate Rev. Jenny Caughman, a Swedenborgian minister serving a Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, TN, we were both in tears and held each other as the weight of our trip, and our common fear for the future of Christianity in our country and world came face to face with the history of this sacred space and the pain poured out here. 

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! 

But now they are hidden from your eyes.

-Luke 19:41

What are we missing that the people of Jerusalem were missing as they continued to await a messiah that was living amongst them?  They wanted a messiah to save them from the Roman persecution, to make their lives easier, a King riding on a white stallion with sword drawn. Instead God came as a loving, peace-filled person, a commoner, just like one of them, riding on a donkey.  A person that was only about love, not war, reaching out to the downcast and estranged people of the religion of the time, embracing the outsiders. He rejected the religion of special birth rights and priorities, exclusive, hierarchical, following external laws as the priests interpreted in their sacred texts.   

God through Jesus life was showing a different way, a way of inclusion for all people, a way based on a commandment of love for one another, and the example of this life as lived amongst them as one of them, Jesus.  He brought them all in. He ate with them. He visited their homes. He walked with them and called them to follow, just as He calls us to follow.  It is not following Jesus as the man but following the life he exemplified as a personal savior.. As we sang, “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known”. Because our understanding of God is unique to each one of us. NO one else knows God the way we uniquely know God, and God uniquely knows each one of us and loves us just as we are and comes to us as we can accept. 

Gregory Boyle writes in his latest book about his work with kids from the gangs in LA, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness.:

“Nothing is more consequential in our lives than the notion of God we hold.  Not God. The notion of God.  Heaven was not a goal for Jesus, (repeat) but loving was.  We come to see that to follow Jesus is to change our understanding of God. Then we leave the wilderness, ready to extend this tender, loving glance in the world.” (3)

He goes on, “How could we have gotten this so wrong? There is no moment when God gets pissed off.  We do, but God never does. God is never toxic, but quite often our version of God, to which we cling, can be. We need to lose patience with such a puny god.  At one time or another we all had a version of God that was rigid.  But the depth of our own experience tells us that our idea of God wants to be fluid and evolving.” 

“If our God makes us feel unworthy and in debt, wrong God. If God frightens us, wrong God. IF God is endlessly disappointed in us, wrong God.  God’s love for me is zero dependent on my love for God. But our notion of God can atrophy and get stuck in our own arrested development  And it can be hard to shake the transactional god who puts us in debt. It is our lifelong task, to refine our view of God.” (3)

Refining our image of God is not just for us, but this leads to how we think and how we treat others.  If we can’t uncover the goodness in ourselves, then everything we see is ugly, limited, and not measuring up.  Try, as the poet Hafiz tell us, to look “upon your self more as God does. For He knows your true royal nature. God is never confused and can only see Himself in you.”

Father Gregory Boyle writes in his first book, Tatoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, “Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” (Smiling, let us envision God smiling on us). It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image.  It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA.  God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment.” (4)

I think this is the essential meaning of Easter: letting go of our small boxed in, limited God, letting it die, bury it in the tomb, and let the ever transforming and expanding God be resurrected in our life. The secret of Jesus ministry was that God was always at the center of it. The Divinity of Jesus showed us the God who loves without measure and without regret. The God who keeps knocking on all our hearts. 

(3) Boyle, Gregory. The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness. United States: Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2021.

(4) Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. United Kingdom: Free Press, 2010. p. 29

Rev. Jane Siebert is an ordained Swedenborgian minister living in Wichita, Kansas, and recently finished serving as president of the Swedenborgian Church of America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *