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In St Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem took him through Jericho before then climbing the steep hillsides from the Jordan Valley into the hill country of Judaea. If you make that journey today about half way to Jerusalem, you are confronted with a shocking sight. Lining the side of the road are hundreds of stumps of olive trees that have been cut down. Since 2000 almost half a million olive trees have been uprooted and destroyed across the West Bank, to make way for Israeli settlements, settlement roads, and the separation barrier.

Olive trees are vital to the Palestinian economy, yielding olives, oil and wood for fuel and to carve into souvenirs to sell. But they also have symbolic importance. The trees can live over a thousand years, they have a sense of permanence in an increasingly fragile existence and, ironically in this most contested land, the olive branch has been used as a sign of peace. The Keep Hope Alive campaign supports Palestinian farmers by protecting existing olive trees, and replanting 50,000 trees that have been destroyed. Keep Hope Alive does this through the help of people around the world, who sponsor olive trees, or even come and volunteer in the West Bank; in spring planting new trees, in autumn working side by side with farmers to bring in the harvest.

Olives and Branches
The Mount of Olives features quite a lot in the gospel stories of Jesus, especially during his last few days. His route into Jerusalem took him near the Mount of Olives and after the Last Supper that is where they went at first before the Garden of Gethsemane. The modern Mt of Olives is in Arab east Jerusalem and has many notable places such as burial grounds, churches (including one named after Mary Magdalene), and Mary’s tomb.
Gethsemane lies at the foot of the mount. It is one of the focuses of Jesus’ last days in and around Jerusalem.
We don’t pay it nearly as much attention as the other places in the last week of Jesus’ life during our Holy Week services and prayers. We think more of the gate where Jesus entered; the temple that he cleanses and where he taught; Golgotha where he was crucified. But the Mount of Olives stands, as it were, like a silent backdrop to the rest of the drama. Although we think of palm branches being cut down and used to welcome Jesus on his donkey, none of the gospels actually say they were palms. Perhaps there was a mixture of difference types including palms and olive branches.

The Value of Olives and Prayer
What is so shocking about cutting down hundred of olive trees is that they are so valuable and take a long time to replace. They supply the fruit which is commonly eaten in Mediterranean lands and from which oil for cooking is pressed. The trees are able to live in dry conditions and last for up to 1,000 years. They can also provide a little shade from the hot sun.

I like to think of olive trees as a symbol of prayer. They stand silently as a backdrop to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus prayed near these ancient trees just before his arrest, agonising and then accepting the Father’s will. Like the rich fruit of the olive tree, from Jesus was pressed that life-giving and healing sacrifice as he died on the cross. Just as the trees may have stood for 1,000 years there, Jesus’ death on the cross was part of God’s eternal purposes to provide a way for us to know him. These things took time to come to fruition and are to be highly valued in our own Christian lives. Through Jesus God holds out an olive branch o the world offering us peace with him.

Pray for those whose lives depend on tending olive trees, especially poor Palestinian farmers. Pray also for those who think it is right to uproot and destroy those precious trees. Pray for yourselves, that you may highly prize the Olive Tree who is Jesus.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




True and humble king,
hailed by the crowd as Messiah:
grant us the faith to know you and love you,
that we may be found beside you
on the way of the cross,
which is the path of glory.