As promised, here’s my post on visiting the Garden of Gethsemane during my recent humanitarian aid trip to Israel in November. There will be a follow-up post later to share about exploring the Old City of Jerusalem!
Nestled in the forested mountains near Jerusalem, Bethlehem was held in a chill drizzle. The houses built of stone were perfect for keeping the heat of the sun at bay but when cold swept the hilly landscape there was no escaping it’s frigid grasp. We tugged on our jeans, jackets, and runners instead of the usual flip flops and sun dresses, waved goodbye to our Palestinian host families, and hopped in the rented van for the short drive to Jerusalem.
The sun had forced it’s way through the clouds by the time we parked on the Mount of Olives, though the wind has risen and we slipped frozen hands into pockets and pulled our hoods up. The view was spectacular anyway. Across the Kidron Valley the Old City of Jerusalem stood inside it’s ancient walls. The golden dome of the Temple Mount glittered in the sunlight like a caliph’s palace. And a crackling speaker system suddenly came to life, droning out the Moslem call to prayer. And the ruins of the Jewish Temple steps reminded me of my last visit to the city. We slowly walked down the Mount spotting a camel and donkey on our way.
The Mount of Olives had been named for the many olive groves that once grew on it’s slopes but much of the mount was now Jewish cemetary. The landscape was dotted with cathedrals, churches, and mosques that marked holy sites to various denominations and religions.
Thousands of graves covered the mountainside and just across the Kidron Valley was another cemetary, this one for Moslems. The Jews, standing firm in their faith that their Messiah will come from Heaven to the Mount of Olives, have spent hundreds of thousands of shekels to be buried there in hopes that they will arise from the grave and be the first to meet him. The Moslems just across the Kidron Valley believe that their Prophet Mohammed will return to this earth one day at the site of the Dome of the Rock, and they pay highly to be buried where they can be the first to rise from the dead and see him. The conflict in Israel suddenly made perfect sense as we looked at this “standoff” of cemetaries. In faith, each group feels the need to maintain a hold on this land that has belonged to their forefathers, the ground that bears the bones of their ancestors. And as they struggle to keep their hold on this hallowed ground, the Christians and Armenians and so many other groups also try to stake a claim. I could commiserate with all of them given the significance of this place.
Our path led us to the foot of the Mount of Olives and into the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ve always found God in nature, divinity in simplicity. Walking through the Garden was my moment of serenity, to meditate with the One I’ve placed my hope in, to revel in knowing He once walked that ground and wandered between those ancient trees. Despite the crowd that normally lined the walkway, the masses dispersed for a short time and it was peaceful. Gethsemane is my favorite place in all of Jerusalem because it feels untouched by time in a city where shrines, mosques, and memorials crowd each holy site. The gnarled and thick trunks of the olive trees gave way to spreading bows and flowered vines clung to the garden walls. It was still and beautiful.
Built beside the Garden was the Church of All Nations. Constructed with the funds and efforts of many nations and people groups, I liked this church best of the many we visited in Israel. There were plenty of beautifully constructed churches and mosques in the area, but knowing that this one was built out of partnership between so many cultures, backgrounds, and denominations was refreshing. Some of the denominations in Israel compete for their piece of the holy sites, for their foothold on this land that is already embroiled in an age-old conflict. In some of the churches and mosques we were told that prayer and worship was forbidden. But the Church of All Nations gives me a hope for the region, hope that all people may worship freely wherever they choose one day and won’t have to fight over land rights.
In all of this, Gethsemane was a perfect way to start our day in Jerusalem. Even though the signs of conflict within Jerusalem are still prevalent, going into the Old City after spending peaceful time in the Garden gave me a sense of hope for the country and the people.