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.

Prairie Encounters

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