October 4, 2019
He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.Luke 22:41-44
What could make a man sweat “drops of blood”? Somehow the gnarly olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane evoked the Passion of the Christ on the night He was betrayed. The knobby and twisting tree trunks conjured up a man crumpled and writhing in agony, one that could only be caused by both emotional and physical anguish. Yet these ancient trees, said to be millennia old, proved so sturdy to survive through the ages. That resilience conveyed Jesus’ steadfastness in spirit in the face of imminent torture and death. The spot remained to be known as Gethsemane, Hebrew for “oil press,” where a majestic church also marked this biblical site.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it.John 18:1
Since the time of Jesus, the Garden of Gethsemane had been a pocket of peace and quiet along the busy route through Jerusalem. This grove of eight timeless and timeworn olive trees whose fruit still produced oil used for sanctuary lamps and seeds made into rosary beads. Olive trees were known to live for thousands of years. It was perfectly possible that the same ones in the time of Jesus would have survived to modern times. Sadly, I read that the Romans cut them down in 70 CE for timber. The roots of present trees were carbon-dated to be about 2,300 years old. That could well mean that we were looking at the descendants of the ancient ones as shoots simply grew out of cut trees.
The Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony, was built in 1924 beside the garden and over the rock on which Jesus was believed to have prayed. The arched Roman façade was topped by a vividly-colored mosaic of the Christ giving His heart away for mankind. The masses and the elite on both sides looked to Him with reverence. The powerful, colorful imagery of divine love and unity, so conspicuous even from across Kidron Valley, took on even more gravitas in this volatile land.
We only saw the façade upon exit out front. We had entered the church through the side entrance from the garden. By that door, we came across a small rock relief of Jesus crouched in prayer over what was called the Rock of Agony, the actual outcrop – allegedly, as was always the case in the Holy Land – lay in front of the altar inside the church. Thus depicted, Jesus may not have feared death itself, but that He would not be spared from the horror of a painful one.
The imagery at the altar was no different. In a dramatically lit mosaic by Italian artist Pietro D’Achiardi, Jesus was once again depicted leaning against the rock. His body, though, was not contorted in agony but, instead, it rested in full acceptance of and complete trust in God’s will. Two olive trees flanked Jesus at the center as three of His disciples slept under one.
This masterpiece evoked such solitary melancholy and an overwhelming sense of abandonment, perhaps the very depth of the human experience. Though the night sky was rendered in blue and the trees in gold, the rock and Jesus Himself were awash in bloody red, the color of the Passion of the Christ. The scene conveyed Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice as poignantly as any depiction of Him hanging on the cross.
Holy Land architect Antonio Barluzzi similarly designed the church to recreate the darkness of night and capture the sorrow in Jesus’ soul. Dim lighting rendered the nave almost enveloped in obscurity, mostly illuminated only by the intense natural light streaming in the main door and alabaster windows.
We came minutes short of noontime, but Barluzzi invariably transported churchgoers and visitors to midnight at any time of day. Arched columns supported ceiling domes painted purplish blue and studded with pinpoint stars. I looked up as I would the starry sky. The details with which Barluzzi pervaded the church imbued it with a densely dark atmosphere I had not seen in any Christian place of worship.
As in other churches in the Holy Land, original pieces of the mosaic floor from a fourth-century church in this site were discovered and preserved under glass. Somehow floors had better chances of enduring through time and theft. This Byzantine design was copied throughout the modern church.
So why was it called the Church of All Nations? Our guide explained that at least 12 countries shouldered the cost of construction and a few others contributed mosaic pieces among many artworks. This became, easily, my favorite church in the Holy Land. The visual aesthetics, the biblical event depicted, and the emotional atmosphere all worked in concert to put visitors, or at least this particular one, in the appropriate spiritual head space.
My epiphany in Gethsemane was that Christian believers were never promised a rose garden, only that we would never despair alone. Jesus had been there, done that, and He would always be with us.
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