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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Turning …

Good Friday, April 14, 2017
Joint Lutheran-Catholic-Anglican Service

A few weeks ago I participated in a retreat with Steve Bell as presenter. He’s a successful JUNO-Award winning Christian musician from Winnipeg. It was a special treat to ponder Steve’s thoughtful reflections interspersed with beautiful songs on the guitar. Among the Lenten themes Steve explored with us were the words Passion and Compassion.

Steve shared how he had sat with his ailing mother when she was no longer able to communicate all that much. He shared with us how terribly uncomfortable that had been. So used to do-ing stuff, all Steve could do … was to … sit with her. Steve sat with his mother – awkward, restless and unsure of himself.

As Steve sat with mom feeling so darn useless and awkward, he remembered how, as a young boy, he sometimes had noticed all the veins showing clearly on the back of his mom’s hand. He remembered how he used to kind’a play … with those veins when he was little.

And so, now some 50 years later, sitting restlessly with his mom, holding her hand, he noticed once again her veins. And just like a long time ago, he began to play with them again. Steve discovered that just sitting with mom and holding her hand was in fact … enough. Sitting with her was more than enough, it was rich and full … meaning-full.

Because every time their eyes met, Mom smiled at her son. Steve learnt an important lesson: simply sitting … with mom … and loving her through her hand became the expression of compassion for Steve, until Jesus took his mother’s hand to lead her to the place of LOVE prepared for her in eternity. Steve thus learnt about the passive action of compassion.

It is clear that Jesus had a passion for Compassion. Throughout the three short years of his ministry, Jesus plowed through life bringing healing and mercy, bringing grace and justice, through actions and words coming straight from God himself. Jesus can easily be called an activist: he tirelessly drew crowds and taught them, he had a nose for those who were hurting and lost, he fearlessly jumped over and broke barriers and walls, social barriers, cultural walls and religious boundaries, much to the dismay of the learned and the well-off.

He instructed his disciples and the  crowds, blessed the children, and had sharp words for those who felt religiously superior to everyone else. Jesus’ passion for compassion stirred one whirlwind after another.

It all came to a climax that morning when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowd went wild: Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

And then … came … the turning … The crowd turned, and Jesus turned … Jesus’ passion for compassion turned into passive … passion … Events turn to the worst, and Jesus simply lets it all happen to him. Gone is his passionate outreach and touch, gone is his passionate embracing of the lost and needy, gone is his fiery speech. Jesus the activist turns into a passive victim … or so it seems …

Our faith teaches us that Jesus went before us in all things. Because of Jesus, no one need suffer alone ever again. Jesus knows our human condition – intimately. Jesus ran the gamut of emotions and experiences. Jesus knew all about relationships and betrayals, about loving devotion and brutal abandonment, about boundless joy and scornful hate.

Finally “going before us in all things” required one more surrender; the hardest, most painful moment, the event we recall today – on this Friday which we call Good. In order for Jesus to enter fully into solidarity with our human condition, our suffering and death, he turned … and let it all be done unto him … – the worst betrayal, the worst crime, the worst death.

Good Friday is ironically named, really. It really is a terrible and disorienting day. The worst human treachery and the worst affront are on full and embarrassing display today, seemingly swallowing whole our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.  Of all days in church, today we re-visit in a very graphic way the reality of our losses, the pain of our deepest disappointments and the harsh truth of our sinful complicity in snuffing out all that is holy and healthy and beautiful, in ourselves, in others, in God’s world.

On this day Christ absorbed all the world’s sorrow and sin, and bore them to the grave. Today is about death. Dead death. We feel death in our bones. We feel death breathing down our neck. No matter how lavishly we live in order to mask and perfume the stench of death, we know deep down that death is inescapable. We fear that it could be the last word on our lives.

On this day, this Good Friday, we need to feel the real agonizing and desperate loss that precedes resurrection. If nothing else, we prayerfully and compassionately commiserate in solidarity, after Jesus’ example, with those who have no such hope. It is all intended to be mighty uncomfortable, and it’s all intended to make us brutally honest – with ourselves, with one another, with God.

Jesus is the Saviour who first says “follow me,” burns with zeal for God, in passion and compassion, then … dies … looking like the ultimate loser. But he didn’t die a victim, he died a victor. For to keep extending love, God’s love and mercy, to your murderers as they are killing you is not for sissies. Carrying pain and insults willingly has nothing to do with being a doormat! Bearing such pain with integrity and strength is only possible when we are secure in knowing who and whose … we are: God’s beloved son and daughter, in whom God is well pleased.

In Jesus, God effectively neutralized the power of evil in the world by saying: “I’m willing to suffer. I will bear the problem myself.” This is a brand-new answer, much like  defusing a bomb. Now the answer no longer contributes to the problem anymore. In the cross, God says: “I will bear the problem myself. I take upon myself the sin of the world. There is NOTHING that I cannot transform. Try me.”

And so in his death, Jesus killed death itself by absorbing and neutralizing the very darkness of death that ambushes us all. From that “Good” Friday on no one, no one, needs to suffer and die alone ever again. Jesus has been there done that, and he awaits us in our darkest hour to hold our hand in order to lead us in our painful passion with God`s compassion through our darkness into a new light.

The first century folks, who experienced this event in real time, didn’t have the luxury of knowing where this brutal execution would be leading. Neither do so many who suffer and cry out today have any idea that their suffering could lead to new life. After the example of our Lord, who died in solidarity with all humanity, this holy day of Christ’s death compels us to come alongside all our desperate sisters and brothers in need, both far and near, who cannot possibly imagine a resurrection, neither in this life or the next. We pray today for those who cannot pray for themselves. And it is a day for fearless moral inventory, acknowledging truthfully our complicity in causing one another’s grief and sorrow, hurt and destruction.

Jesus, the passionate compassion of God, is summoning us today to join him in the turning … Just as Steve held his mother’s hand as she turned towards God, so Jesus holds our hand as we turn … turn away from indifference and toward solidarity and community, turn away from sin, destruction and death, towards God our Creator and Redeemer; turn away from all bondage in our hearts and towards the cross where Love conquered death forever.

No suffering will ever need to be suffered alone anymore. Our Lord has indeed gone before us in all things; that commitment cost him his life – for us. We claim our salvation in him. Oh come, let us adore. AMEN

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Window on the World

As I am re-reflecting on the Cathedral windows, preparing my meditations for public sharing, I just realized something: none of the windows depict the crucifixion … An oversight? Maybe, and maybe not … The risen Christ, whose Real Presence is given to us in the Eucharist, also reveals his Crucified and Real Presence  in the least among us, in those sisters and brothers crying out for deliverance and healing, whose death-cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” still echoes around the globe. Jesus’ agony in the garden, his death-cry on the cross, is still with us in chilling, shocking and horrifying ways:

in the millions of refugees walking to safety …
in the missing and murdered aboriginal women
demanding justice …
in the indigenous peoples of the world
trampled on by western interests
of consumerism and economic monopolies …
in the quiet neighbour suffering abuse and neglect
within the walls of a home
intended to be a haven of safety and peace …
in minorities stigmatized for being different
robbed of the right to fullness of life …
in victims of the sex trade and human trafficking …
in the earth crying out for justice and right relation …
in the extinction of countless species
due to human ravaging of resources …
in child soldiers seeking love and belonging
in all the wrong places and in the wrong ways …
in innocent people killed in bomb attacks
in the depletion and unjust distribution
of the earth’s gifts for all …
in death-dealing superiority of one race over another …
in merciless and cold policies from corporate board rooms …

The window depicting the Crucifixion of the Most Holy One does not need a place in churches and cathedrals. That window screams its stark truth on our television screens and media-outlets, draws our reluctant attention on our mobile phone devices, iPads and news stands, ignorantly fills our neighbourhood homes, locker room talks and coffee row gossip clubs. What have we done to our God in one another?

How can we ever reverse our collective human culpability in so much visible and invisible, subtle and blatant, local and global suffering and destruction? We don’t deserve forgiveness. When it comes to sin and evil, all of us are capable, all of us are guilty; we only differ in degree, if we differ at all.

Screaming Friday, horrible Friday, death-dealing Friday … Good Friday??!!
Of all days filled with this walk-with-Jesus
(no walk in the park, that’s for sure!)
this is the day for mass confession,
for taking collective responsibility,
especially in the western world,
for the ravages on creation and all living things,
for the exploitation and destruction
of beautiful human beings
in desperate need of shelter and safety,
food and clothing,
a future and a homeland, a promise and a hope.
Do we truly grasp the extent of our evil ways?

O God, we would have been better off
left to our own self-destruction.
You, O God, would be better off without us!
Crush us, grind us to powder, return us
to the dust of the earth where we belong.
Start all over again,
creating without any mistake this time,
which really means: don’t grant free will
to the loving creating work of your hands,
because that’s what caused all the trouble
in the first place.
Give yourself a chance, crazy God,
to re-create, to begin again,
and do it right this time …

Good Friday, Saving Friday, Redeeming Friday…
Why, foolish  and overly generous Lord,
why indeed, did you save us from ourselves?!

Because my tiny cherished earthling,
I love you, and you are precious in my eyes …
Because I desire your wholeness despite everything …
Because all is not lost, despite
what you see and hear, taste and feel.
Because you are so much more than what your 
conniving ways can scheme.

Because you cannot save yourselves,
I sent a helper to point you
in my saving, redeeming, merciful direction:
look to your Christ, my Jesus, my Son.
Why do you think he is my Son?
Look to that One who shows the way out of your
self-inflicted misery …
Look to the One who held on to LOVE, my LOVE,
amidst a death-dealing swirling tsunami
of HATE and EVIL,
and then see what power is unleashed
when you learn to do
just that …
Death itself dies, its power dismantled,
swallowed up forever
in LOVE …

I hide my face
in shame and undeserving joy …
Love won’t let me drown in the waters of death,
but washes me in waters of life,
a cocktail-potion of terrifying
Grace mixed with Mercy
prepared by a crazy Lover in love with me, with us,
a re-creating Lover who won’t take death for an answer
under any circumstance …

Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy …
I for-give … you …
Mercy within Mercy within Mercy

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
for by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

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