Pressed Down

There’s a growing trend to substitute olive oil for vegetable oil in most cooking. Many of us love to use olive oil. It was a staple in the ancient Mediterranean world, and it still is very important today. During the time of Jesus and for hundreds of years before that, people used olive oil for more than just cooking. The Menorah in the Temple was lit with wicks dipped in olive oil. Even today many Jews use pure olive oil in their Chanukah Menorah. The people of Judea ate the olives, used the oil as a preservative, and as a lubricant for skin care. It was also used as oil for anointing.

Jesus was described as the “Anointed One;” later Christians were referred to as Masseheen, an Arabic word meaning anointed with olive oil. The story of the Good Samaritan refers to olive oil being used for healing.

Amazingly olive trees will grow where other plants will not. They thrive in rocky and unproductive soil. The Garden of Gethsemane was such a place. Olive trees were abundant on the Mount of Olives, which is a ridge that ran north and south of Jerusalem.
Some sources state the ridge is two hundred feet higher than the Temple Mount. That is where Jesus went to look out over Jerusalem and where he wept over the holy city.

I was in the Holy Land a couple of months ago. Our group had arrived in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee. We visited the ancient ruins of this town, and then approached the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish located at Taghba on the shores of the lake. There in the square in front of the church
stood a large rock-looking object (see above image). Nedal, our Palestinian guide, gathered us around this object and said: “Welcome to Gethsemane.” We all looked puzzled, looking around: we’re not in Jerusalem, so why does he say, welcome to Gethsemane? Nedal then explained that Gethsemane means … “olive press.”

Jesus prayed often on the Mount of Olives and he gathered there with the disciples to get away from the crowds. The Garden of the olive press, Gethsemane, was on the Mount of Olives.

Today there are many methods of picking olives. In ancient times they beat the trees which caused the ripe olives to fall to the ground. Today the same method can be used with machines though some growers still pick the olives by hand.

Jesus was whipped by the guards much like the trees got whipped, trying to make him fall to the ground.

Once gathered, the olives are placed on a circular stone basin in which a millstone sat. Think of animals walking in circles around a millstone pushing the stone around, grinding whatever is put beneath it. This is how the olives were crushed until eventually a paste was formed that included bits of leaves, twigs, and pieces of the millstone.

Is it any surprise that olives and olive trees feature prominently in the Gospels as a significant metaphor for Jesus’ life and mission, his passion and death? It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus’ agony began, where he would be “pressed upon…”

Through the crushing process liquid begins to emerge from the fruit, a liquid reddish in hue — it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus’ spirit was thrown into turmoil as the pressing of the stone of evil became heavier and heavier. Part of that pressure  was the agony of facing an extremely painful and  humiliating death. In those days it was believed that anyone who was crucified was cursed. The most horrible “pressing upon” was the weight of human sin and Jesus’ perceived sense of separation from God. Luke (22:34) reminds us that “[Jesus’] agony became like drops of blood falling down upon the ground” much like the drops of red liquid from the crushed fruit.

Once the olives are crushed a paste forms that gets smeared onto mats or a burlap type fabric. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Messiah means “to smear”. The baskets or mats are stacked under a huge stone column called the gethsemane or olive press. While the stone column of sin began to press harder, Jesus knelt and prayed several times, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me….”

More pressure is applied to the olives, and more liquid is pressed from the olive paste. The weight of sin pressed out the very blood of our Saviour, while Jesus, in agony, struggled to keep the love-passage in his spirit open to God the Father, even in his moment of total abandonment.

After the oil is pressed out and collected it begins to separate, leaving pure virgin oil. The evil pressed and pressed upon Jesus,
until only the pure virgin oil of God’s love trickled from his spirit. The more pressure, the more oil, the more love.

The remainder of the paste and liquid was used to make soap.
God’s soap is the love Jesus held onto despite the evil done to him, a love that truly can wash away our sins.

Often our lives feel dry and unproductive. We look everywhere for something, anything that will leave us feeling moisturized, refreshed and alive. The love of Jesus is like the olive oil,
lubricating and lighting our lives, making the pressures of life easier to bear. The pure love of Jesus can even help us pour out more love under the pressure of hardship, suffering and pain.

So every time we consume olives or olive products, think of Jesus who, like the olives, grew God’s love and mercy in the desolated and unproductive places of life. God is indeed with us through times of pressure, suffering and death. As in Jesus, God can press good and love and mercy from our sorrows and trials. 

Every time we use olive oil, think of the pressing, think of the life-blood squeezed from our Lord by the weight of sin. Yet Jesus, the Word become Flesh, returned pure mercy and love to kiss the yearnings of every human heart and make us whole: by his wounds we are healed.

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The Not-so-Holy Land

As our guides pointed out, the land of the Holy One is full of both ancient and living stones. The ancient stones tell vivid tales of village and city life in a distant past; they reveal the presence of Roman Emperors, Persian Sultans and other foreign powers who ruled in former days; they witness to the spiritual origins of Judaism and Christianity, and they testify to the arrival of Islam and the establishment of its holy sites. While the ancient stones take us back to the past, with remarkable power to explain us to ourselves today, the “living stones” refer to the present political and social challenges between Israelis and Palestinians.

On this day, the eve of Holy Week, in which we will recall our Saviour’s passion and death, my heart recalls the encounters with the “living stones.” It was not easy or pleasant, far from it. Seeing the Wall of Separation running right through Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, was disturbing. Seeing young (and I mean young!) Israeli soldiers with semi-automatic weapons patrolling the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City was intimidating. Visiting a Palestinian refugee camp and a Jewish settlement one after the other was disheartening — two contrasting realities existing side by side with little friendship, communication and even understanding between the two. Driving through checkpoints with military surveillance and having our passports checked felt unsettling; local residents undergo this on a daily basis. Even visiting the Yad Vashem/Holocaust Museum raised more disturbing questions than gave answers concerning the current political impasse in this Holy/Not-So-Holy Land.

In this spiritual and cultural epicenter of the world, where civilizations and religions converge, the quest for real peace and justice seems shockingly elusive. I have wondered why God chose this region, of all places in the world, for his Son Jesus to be born into, until I  remembered Jesus’ own words as recorded in Mark’s Gospel: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) The length to which our God will go is beyond what is humanly considered reasonable…

Of all people in the world, the Jewish people know firsthand about living in exile for centuries, to be dispossessed from a homeland that is safe, stable and promising a flourishing future for their children’s children. Despite these centuries of displacement and persecution, however, the Jewish people remain God’s chosen people. As a chosen people of God it is their mission to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6) especially in its dealings with orphans and the poor, widows and strangers (Deut. 10:28). For being chosen by God is not an end in itself, to lead to superiority and self-glorification, but is intended as a model witness in a world of pain and despair. Therefore the bar is high to embody God’s own mercy and compassion, justice and peace, reconciliation and healing.

Given this holy calling from the Most High God, acknowledged by the Church at its highest level, and the responsibility to live this calling with integrity and generosity, humility and joy, it is therefore doubly shocking to learn of the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people, a sizeable number of which are our Christian sisters and brothers. How can this current policy towards the people who dwelt in this land before 1948 be a light to the nations?

Investigating further, it appears that Israel claims to be a Jewish state based on the secular values of justice, peace and liberty. However, despite a written commitment to uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex; guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education and culture; safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter’ strong religious dynamics continue to fuel Israel’s almost aggressive justification for existing. The Jewish rabbi who addressed our group was clear: the Jewish people have a Biblical right to the land, and that right supersedes all other reasons and justifies all means. And he is not alone; so much for the secular claims. Moreover, despite the 1948 declaration to “loyally uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter” Israel continues to oppress and restrict freedom of movement for its Palestinian citizens, with Gaza being the blight on Israel’s existence, build a Wall of Separation condemned by the United Nations, and disrespect the borders established in 1948. Is it surprising that such actions breed violent responses? Somehow justice, peace and liberty do not apply to the Palestinian people.

The current situation is profoundly heartbreaking, heart-wrenching and puzzling. Having looked in the faces of our Palestinian brothers and sisters now, having seen and heard their plight, I came home with a restless heart. I searched hard for understanding and for answers. It was thus that I stumbled upon Paul Levy’s poignant reflection about the collective trauma inflicted by the Holocaust. Unsettling and disturbing, Levy’s analysis resonated deeply and seems to explain a lot without excusing it:

In Gaza, a role reversal has taken place – the Jewish people, the victim of unresolved trauma that they suffered not only during the Second World War, but throughout their history, have now become the perpetrators. … Israel, to the extent it hasn’t dealt with its own trauma, has split-off from and at the same time internalized the abuser, while unconsciously identifying with its original aggression, which is a common characteristic of the traumatized soul. … In an appalling reversal of the golden rule, Israel is doing unto others what was done unto it.

In an interview with Professor Dory Laub on the Yad Vashem website itself I read: What strikes me is that there is so much awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, yet there is no awareness of PTSD in Israel, the country in which it should be a daily acceptance. I continued to research about the phenomenon of collective trauma and PTSD. Lights went on in my mind, providing disturbing answers to my puzzlement about Israel’s harsh treatment of their Palestinian sisters and brothers. At the same time a daunting, comprehensive, challenging road ahead emerged towards healing and reconciliation:

In order to heal … Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to overcome fear conditioning that has been reinstated for ages and transferred from one generation to the next. Furthermore, instead of educating children to fear and hate Palestinians, Israelis must integrate Palestinian children into the education system.

Jews must abandon notions of segregation and reach out to neighboring communities throughout the world and in the Middle East, with the goal of extinguishing fear of the other by creating solidarity and collaborative relationships. Only then can Jews embrace Judaism as one of many equal human collectives that strive for freedom, justice and a global community free of trauma. (excerpt from Collective Trauma article)

Are the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, living out of unresolved collective trauma? For centuries, Jewish people themselves have been the forgotten, oppressed and even annihilated orphans and poor, widows and strangers; now the shoe is on the other foot. Is  peace and justice in a social, religious and political climate of unresolved trauma even achievable?

There is something profoundly human and divine about connecting on a personal heart-level, but such a connection comes at an emotional cost. I now see the faces of our Palestinian sisters and brothers and call them by name, a reality that my heart cannot forget. The heart-connection is costly, as I can no longer remain indifferent or complacent. In Christ we are one another’s keepers, called to be instruments of healing, peace and friendship, in the name of God who cared so much about our well-being that He gave himself to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. The “living stones” in the Not-So-Holy land will mark my observance of Holy Week in an indelible way this year. Lord, have mercy and heal our hatred.

* The Jerusalem Declaration condemns Christian Zionism

* Sabeel is an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians.

* Tikkun is a news and opinion site under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Lerner. Best Path to Peace is a recent exchange of opinions on how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict could be resolved.

* Not all hope is lost. Small groups are swimming against the tide with supernatural endurance and courage. One of those is Kids4Peace.

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Temple Talk

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the cleansing of the Temple shortly before our Lord’s Passion, leading to the impression that Jesus’ temper tantrum in the Temple provoked his immediate arrest. John’s Gospel (John 2:13-22) presents the same story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John’s Gospel is filled with signs and wonders, filled with puzzling/metaphorical language. This makes us curious: who is this Jesus? And what is his  mission?

It was the Passover. From the time of Moses, Jews from far and wide come to Jerusalem still today to recall the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt and to bring their offerings to God in thanksgiving. The Temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people.

However, the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and to this day has never been rebuilt. All that remains is the Temple Mount/ Platform and the Western Wall. This Western/Wailing Wall continues to be a holy site for our Jewish sisters and brothers. Thousands continue to pray there every day from all corners of the world.

Jesus too had made his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. And there in the outer courts of the Temple amidst the crowds, the wheeling and dealing, and the noise of bleating animals being sold for sacrifice, Jesus took offence. Fashioned a whip of cords he blew his top: “Get out! Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” When the religious leaders questioned his violent actions, Jesus replied with fury in his eyes: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19).

Did Jesus predict the fall of the physical Temple, a disaster that took place in 70 AD? Not exactly. Jesus was challenging the authorities – and us – to replace Temple worship with believing in him. Jesus was telling them that he is the new Temple – that he would die and be resurrected in three days. Jesus himself becomes the new “holy place.” “The Word became flesh, and lived among us,” John writes. In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is no longer in bricks and mortar, but with human beings, as a human being.

Only after that first Easter, only after Jesus was raised from the dead the disciples remembered, understood and believed what Jesus said in the heat of this confrontation in the Temple. Now as today’s followers of Jesus, we worship God in spirit and in truth through his Son our Lord who is God’s Temple, built with living stones beyond destruction. Thus holy living is far more important than securing a holy physical site.

However, I discovered that we are not scot-free in this matter.  Before leaving for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I read Karen Armstrong’s book Jerusalem – One City, Three Faiths. It is a sobering account. I learnt that throughout its existence of several millennia Jerusalem, of all cities in the world, has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions, most notably inflicted by members of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of this bloodshed and destruction was done for one major reason: conquest and possession of holy sites.

I’m ashamed to say that we Christians are not exempt. We have done our share in securing our own version of a physical temple – holy sites to honour our Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong. It was truly an intense and inspiring spiritual experience to find ourselves so close to original sites where our Lord walked and talked and taught, where our Lord Jesus was born, suffered and died, and rose again. It was truly inspiring to smell and taste, to feel and literally touch the origins of our faith. Going on this type of pilgrimage has value and meaning. The experience truly has the power to grow our faith and discipleship in new ways. But holy sites are not to be ends in themselves; they are intended as means to God, means to deepen our heart’s desire for and fidelity to our Lord. We visit these sites as pilgrims seeking to deepen our faith, not as religious tourists snapping pictures to brag about back home.

It is important to go the Holy Land in faith. It is equally important to go in the awareness that we have secured holy sites through war and bloodshed – often. Confronting that stark reality in Armstrong’s book instilled a good dose of humility and repentance before I boarded the plane to Tel Aviv …

The command to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to even love our enemy, all of that  conveniently goes out the window every time we become fixated on anything but Jesus himself, whether it’s securing a holy site or securing the rightness of our own belief system, or considering ourselves superior to another in whatever way.

The people in that Temple courtyard who witnessed Jesus having his temper tantrum insisted on wanting a sign. What sign can you give us, Jesus? Show us a sign. … Do we look for signs? Does our faith rely on signs and physical/tangible stuff? Does our faith rely on a specific place or style of worship, a specific church structure or a specific physical place? Or does our faith rely on Jesus alone? Are we prone to making an idol of worshiping in a certain manner or in a particular church? Sadly, there is plenty of evidence throughout history that we have been just as guilty of this as those skeptics in the Temple who were shocked and annoyed at Jesus’ blow-up. Indeed, we are still not scot-free in this matter.

One person who successfully avoided the idolatry of buildings and structures was Rev. Billy Graham who died recently at the age of 99. Billy Graham, a Baptist pastor from humble rural beginnings , believed with all his heart that the gospel was the touchstone of Christian unity and the most effective outreach to the lost. In city after city, long before ecumenism was a household word, Graham worked closely with a broad coalition of churches, pastors, bishops and lay leaders. He never founded his own church, but he worked with any willing Christian believer, leader and church to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus. The source of his strength was not a boastful self-confidence, or an ego-flattering following of his own, but rather a posture of humility, confession and prayer with a generous heart for Jesus. With Jesus as the main focus, Graham’s crusades* touched millions and became more than a flash in the pan. By keeping Jesus the focus of his heart and his ministry, Graham succeeded in being, like St. Paul, all things to all people.

Indeed, Jesus is the new Temple. As it was for the first disciples, as it was for Billy Graham, the Temple is now the symbol for the risen Christ. Our faith must rest in Jesus himself, so we too can learn to transcend any institution, any church, any one congregation, any ecclesial structure. Worthy of our trust and faith, Jesus grows us into a fullness of being that glorifies God. Temples and church buildings/structures at best are meant to help us increase that trust and faith. But Temples and church buildings/structures come and go. It is Jesus and his community of disciples who are the living Temple, ongoing witnesses to God’s Good News in a changing world and a changing church. If today’s skeptics demand a sign from us, can we echo Jesus in saying: destroy this church building, and we will rise up as a community of Jesus in three days. For as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians states (1 Cor. 1:18-25), Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.

May we live as people who rely entirely on Jesus to inspire and guide our moral integrity and our relationships. May his word – the Good News of God’s mercy and grace – keep us alive. May His love keep us bound in communion with one another and may his merciful power protect us from idolatry of physical places and human structures. For He is our Temple. Amen.

* Ironic term in this context, for the Crusades were some of the bloodiest conquests of the Holy City.

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