Monthly Archives: March 2021

The Mount of Olives

Mountains last for centuries. The Mount of Olives, the two mile mountain ridge facing the Old City of Jerusalem goes back well beyond the time of Jesus Christ, over two centuries ago. On its slopes, olive trees that gave it its name still grow.

Tombs on the Mount of Olives

Ancient tombs along the mountain and into the Kidron Valley below tell us this place is holy. One day “God’s feet will stand on the Mount of Olives,” calling the dead to be raised, the Prophet Zechariah said. (Zechariah 14,4) The tombs are mostly Jewish, though some ancient Jewish-Christian tombs are there.  Mary’s tomb is near the garden of Gethsemane. Facing the ruins of holy city and its temple, the tombs signify humanity waiting for the promised resurrection on the last day. 

Jesus as a boy knew this mountain when he came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts. Most likely he stayed at Bethany, a village on its eastern slope of the mountain. Galilean pilgrims to Jerusalem stayed there. (Luke 21,37-38)

Pilgrims Viewing Jerusalem from Mount of Olives

Like many today,  he would have stopped on this mountain to gaze at the ancient city across the way. The gospels say he spoke to his disciples about the days to come here. (Mark 13,3-27; Matthew 24,3-25,46) He wept over the city here: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.” (Luke 19,29-44) 

Roman legions under Titus fulfilled that prophecy in 70 AD, when they destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. Some of the temple stones thrown down can still be seen at the base of the old walls.

On the ancient path to Jerusalem

Days before he was crucified, Jesus rode on a donkey down this mountain to the city from Bethphage, surrounded by followers and admirers who sang and danced and cast palm branches before him. (Mark 11,1,11; Matthew 21,1-11; Luke 19, 28-40; John 12,12-19) The ancient path down the mountain to the city may well be the one he took.

Mount of Olives, Sunset

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed with his disciples here in a garden at the foot of the mountain. He fell into an agony as he prayed. Judas, a disciple, knew the place and led soldiers here who arrested him and led him away to be tried and humiliated and crucified. (Mark 14: 32 ff; Matthew 26,36 ff; Luke 22: 39ff; John 18:1ff)

When Jesus died, Matthew’s gospel says “The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”(Matthew 24: 51-54) Tombs like those around the Mount of Olives– all the dead– received the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. “He descended into hell.” Every grave, like the tomb of Jesus, is open to the promise of risen life.

Pilgrims at Lazarus’ Tomb, Bethany

Jesus taught his disciples for 40 days and then ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, Luke’s Gospel says. (Luke 24,50; Acts 1,1 ff) No wonder, then, that Christians early on were attracted to this holy place so associated with Jesus.

In the 5th century the Emperor Constantine built a large church on this mountain where tradition said Jesus taught and prayed with his disciples and ascended into heaven. It was called Eleona, after the emperor’s mother, Helena, an early pilgrim devoted to the Holy Land. Luke’s unique view of the ascension, which inspired the building of this church, also inspired our celebrations of the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost and the easter season.

Russian Church, Mount of Olives

Great numbers of Christians flocked to the three major shrines built by Constantine: the church over the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem; the church over the cave in Bethlehem and the church on the Mount of Olives where he ascended into heaven. Soon other churches were built to mark events in Jesus’ life. On the Mount of Olives, a church marked the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, “Dominus Flevit,” another where he prayed in agony. The churches have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries.

The Mount of Olives became a Christian sanctuary; monks and nuns built large monasteries and pilgrims came, as once Jesus and Jewish pilgrims from Galilee did.

Where Did They Stay?

Bethany, St. Martha

Where did Jesus and his followers stay when they came to Jerusalem for Passover? John’s gospel today points to Bethany near the Mount of Olives. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, Bethany was the first place Galilean pilgrims reached coming up the road from Jericho after traveling down the Jordan Valley,

The meal recalled today suggests they were welcomed by Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, who lived here. They were friends of Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead. Bethany would be a safe place for Jesus and his followers to stay.

My community, the Passionists, have the Church of St. Martha and a retreat house next to it standing over the ancient village of Bethany, today part of East Jerusalem. Olive trees once covered this area in Jesus’ time; they grace the property of St. Martha today. Ancient caves are found here. In Jesus’ day they probably provided shelter for visitors to the feasts. In our first reading today Isaiah speaks of God’s humble Servant bringing peace, not crying out, not making much of himself. Could he have stayed in a cave like this? Bethany evokes memories of the time Jesus was here. 

Caves in Bethany, St. Martha

The traditional tomb of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead,  is a short distance from St. Martha’s, although an Israeli security wall blocks access to it now.

Slavic pilgrims Lazarus Tomb, Bethany


From Bethany Jesus and the others would go to the temple. He taught there and made claims that unsettled the city’s leaders, then he returned to the safety of Bethany, staying among friends. Judas knew the place. On Holy Thursday he gave Jesus up as he prayed in Gethsemane, the Garden of Olives, a short distance away..

Luke’s narrative of the Passion mentions “ A large crowd of people followed Jesus” on the way to his death “including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children…’” 

Bethany 1800s

Were Martha and Mary from Bethany, who anointed Jesus’ feet, among them? Was Mary his mother and the other women who came with him from Galilee also there. I think so.

Monday of Holy Week

Lent 1

John’s gospel for today describes  a meal in Bethany  honoring Jesus following the resurrection of Lazarus.(John 12,1-11) It’s the last meal before the Passover supper, his arrest and his death and resurrection.

Faithful Martha serves the meal; Lazarus newly alive, is at the table. But the one drawing most of our attention is Mary, their sister who, sensing what’s coming, kneels before Jesus to anoint his feet with precious oil and dry them with her hair. “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

The precious oil, an effusive sign of her love and gratitude, also anoints Jesus for his burial. There’s only a passing reference to evil in our gospel reading.  Judas, “the one who would betray him,” complains that the anointing is a waste, but his voice is silenced. This is a time for believers to honor the one they love.

As artist friend of mine painted this picture of Mary anointing Jesus below. How fitting that Holy Week begins with this gospel when, like Mary, we kneel and pour out the precious oil of our love upon him whose precious life is poured out for us.

The Anointing. Duk Soon Fwang

“May the holy cross of our good Jesus be ever planted in our hearts so that our souls may be grafted onto this tree of life and by the infinite merits of the death of the Author of life we may produce worthwhile fruits of penance.” (St. Paul of the Cross,Letter 11)

Let my prayer rise up before you like incense,
The raising of my hands like an evening offering. Ps 141
Like Mary of Bethany we thank you for your love.

May we love you in return.

Morning and Evening Prayer here.

Children’s Prayers here.

A Word to the Weary

The Passion of Jesus is a “word to the weary”. This is how to hear the story of the Passion of Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah says in our first reading for Palm Sunday. (Isaiah 50:4-7)

It will “rouse them” the prophet says.

Who are the weary? The gospel of Mark points them out.  They’re the disciples of Jesus who fall asleep in the Garden before the challenges of faith. They’re the religious leaders and political leaders who can’t see beyond their nation and its security. They’re the crowd that cries out for the death of One promising them a kingdom. They’re the soldiers blindly carrying out an unjust sentence. 

Mark’s Gospel, like the others, tells a story that takes place mostly in darkness. In a dark garden Jesus prays and is betrayed, on a dark day he is sentenced and crucified, the day ends in the darkness of a tomb.

But there are  moments of light for seeing more. There’s the room in Bethany where costly perfume is poured on Jesus’ head, anointing him for his death. There’s the room near the temple where Jesus took bread and wine and gave them to his followers, pledging to bring them to his Kingdom. There’s the centurion who suddenly sees “ the Son of God” as Jesus breathes his last breath. There’s Joseph of Arimathea and the women who do not abandon him but carefully buried him.

Who are the weary? We are, for we also look on in the darkness, not seeing God’s great Love and its promises. Yet Isaiah says, speaking of Jesus, “the Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” He speaks to us in his Passion, a story to rouse us.