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Recover Catholic Devotion to the Mount of Olives

Michael Westhead | The Daily Knight

Flevit super illam (He wept over it), by Enrique Simonet, 1892

The intent of this article is to recover, or strengthen, Catholic devotion to the Mount of Olives and foster a more clear understanding of its significance in our faith, as well as that of the Jews prior to the public manifestation of Christ Our Lord. In so doing we will not only see the ways in which Christ made known His true identity to His Jewish contemporaries, but grow closer to Him and to a more fruitful interpretation of the scriptures. For as Saint Jerome says, ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.


Before diving more deeply into this revealing location it may be helpful to consider some important moments in the life of Christ which transpired on or near the Mount of Olives:


1. Jesus was accustomed to spend time there. See Gospels

2. Jesus taught and prophesied to His disciples there. Matt. 24-25

3. Location where Christ wept over Jerusalem. Luke 19:41

4. Christ descended the Mount on an ass into the City of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday

5. The garden of Gethsemane is on the base of the Mount of Olives. Matt. 26:30

6. Christ ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives. Acts 1:9–12.

7. The angel told the Apostles He would return the same as he went, presumably there.


Bridge joining the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount

Also noteworthy is the description of the Mount of Olives as being over against the Temple in Jerusalem, a phrase most often used to describe a biblical antagonism or a judgement of God. (Mark 13:3) By His very presence there Jesus is conversely making known the judgement against Israel and calling them to repentance - “thou hast not known the time of your visitation...” Luke 19:44. There also existed a bridge to join the mount of Olives with the Temple Mount, as many Jewish Rabbi’s and Prophets were buried there and the red heifer sacrifice took place there, as well.


Jesus is Messiah:


According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “The Mount of Olives separates the Judean Desert to the east from the city of Jerusalem. The olive trees that covered the mount in the past are responsible for its name. An alternate name for the mount cited in the Talmud and the Midrash is the Mount of Anointment, named after the anointing oil, prepared from the olives that grew there, to anoint kings and high priests.” [1] While this is interesting in itself, its significance increases when recalling that Jesus spent so much time on this Mount of Anointing while considering that the Hebrew word for “anointed one” is Mashiach i.e. Messiah.

The Mount of Olives, situated over and against the city of Jerusalem

Jesus is King:


The Gospel tells how Jesus would journey across the brook Cedron after his last supper and ascend the Mount of Olives, pursued by Judas and the soldiers:


“And going out, he went, according to his custom, to the mount of Olives. And his disciples also followed him.” (Luke 22:39)


“When Jesus had said these things, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where there was a garden, into which he entered with his disciples... Judas therefore having received a band of soldiers and servants from the chief priests and the Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.” (John 18:1,3)


For any first century Jew, this moment should have recalled the trial by which King David was pursued unjustly by Absalom*:


“And David said to Ethai: Come, and pass over... And they all wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over: the king also himself went over the brook Cedron, and all the people marched towards the way that looketh to the desert... But David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, going up and weeping, walking barefoot, and with his head covered, and all the people that were with them, went up with their heads covered weeping.” [emphasis added] (2Kgs. 15:22-23, 30)


*Although, David saw his own sins as the final cause of this episode.


Here David, the king of Israel, the anointed one, foreshadows the last moments in the life of the True King of Israel. And as the true king, Jesus is not merely the Messiah but God Himself.


Jesus is the Divine High Priest:


Christ’s identity as the Messiah through his association with the Mount of Olives is simultaneously revealed with His Divine identity. And this is clearly seen in scripture and ancient tradition, too.


“A fascinating Midrashic tradition tells of the hardships of the Shekhinah - the Divine Presence of God [or Glory Cloud] -with the destruction of the Second Temple: “For three and a half years, the Divine Presence rested on the Mount of Olives, and proclaimed three times each day ‘Return, backsliding children, I will cure your backslidings.’ And since they did not return the Divine Presence began departing into the air” (Midrash Lamentations Rabbah). The lesson of this Midrash brought the Jewish pilgrims to fast and pray specifically towards the Mount of Olives, believing that from there the Divine Presence would return to Jerusalem and Messiah would arrive riding on his white donkey. [2]


From the Catholic perspective, we can see how this literally happened in the person of Christ who, for three and a half years, preached repentance and the Kingdom of God to Jerusalem often from the Mount of Olives. Rabbi Jonathan, who witnessed the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD 66–70, wrote that the Shekinah glory of God did indeed leave the Temple in AD 66 and moved to the Mount of Olives. He said that the Lord’s presence “abode on the Mount of Olives hoping that Israel would repent, but they did not; while a Bet Kol [a supernatural voice] issued forth announcing, ‘Return, O backsliding children. Return unto Me, and I will return unto you’ When they did not repent, it said, ‘I will return to My place.'(Midrash Rabbah, Lamentations 2:11)” [5]


The historians Tacitus and Josephus also record similarly, if not identically, these phenomena just prior to the destruction of the temple. This movement of God from the temple to the Mount of Olives was mystically observed in a vision of the prophet Ezechiel at a much earlier time in Jewish history. “And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood over the mount [of Olives] that is on the east side of the city.” (Ez. 11:23)


Thus, it can easily be seen that even in the Old Testament, and as recorded by the Jews of Jesus day, God would leave the temple and dwell over the Mount of Olives in times of apostasy or disobedience. But while the connection between the Glory Cloud of God and Jesus Christ may seem ambiguous, particularly to non-Christians, Zechariah prophesied that God would come to stand on the mount in bodily form! “Then the Lord shall go forth, and shall fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is over against Jerusalem toward the east.” (Zech. 14:3-4) For those inclined to think this is merely metaphorical, the reference to a time “when He fought in the day of battle” recalls Joshua’s meeting outside of Jericho:


“And when Josue was in the field of the city of Jericho, he lifted up his eyes, and saw a man standing over against him: holding a drawn sword, and he went to him, and said: Art thou one of ours, or of our adversaries? And he answered: No: but I am prince of the host of the Lord, and now I am come. Josue fell on his face to the ground. And worshipping, said: What saith my lord to his servant? Loose, saith he, thy shoes from off thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Josue did as was commanded him.” (Josue 5:13-16)


Traditionally, there are two opinions here, with some of the Church Father’s taking this to be a preincarnate appearance of the Son of God. Considering the dichotomy of the angel of the Lord with the Lord in Exodus 3, the statement that “I am come” (John 12:46, Matt. 10:34, John 9:39) which echoes an eternal presence, the decree to remove his shoes, and the act of worship* it is reasonable to believe they were correct. Therefore it would seem that the prophet Zechariah did foresee a day when God in a bodily form would stand on the Mount of Olives, and this is exactly fulfilled by Jesus.


*This word in Hebrew means something like to bow down in adoration but is often used in reference to the Lord and thus is totally in keeping with this hypothesis. Considered alongside the other aspects, it seems likely that this is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.


However, God is slow to anger and quick to forgive - scripture and tradition both reveal that He would return to the Temple from the Mount of Olives, upon repentance, through the eastern gate, sometimes called the Golden Gate. “According to Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah (שכינה) (Divine Presence) used to appear through the eastern Gate, and will appear again when the Anointed One comes” [3] The eastern gate is significant because the High priest would enter through this gate into the temple and according to ancient Jewish tradition, the High Priest, much like Catholic theology, was in the person of God. The sacred name was across his mitre and all would bow upon his passing. “The high priest wearing the holy seal did not merely show that he had been dedicated to the LORD; it showed that he actually was the presence of the LORD in the temple, representing the LORD of Hosts” [6] The Gate itself was peculiar to the temple:

Eastern Gate of the Temple

On the eastern part of the Temple Mount, Sha'ar Harachamim is the gate closest to the site of the Bet Mikdash (Temple). It is set into the eastern wall of the Old City and faces Har Hazaytim (Mount of Olives) and the Jewish cemetery...The gate has two doorways: the south part is known as Sha'ar Harachamim (the Gate of Mercy) and the north part as Sha'ar Teshuvah (Gate of Repentance)...The gate has a special holiness; legend has it that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) used to appear through this gate and will appear again... According to tradition the Mashiach will enter Jerusalem from the east. [4]


Thus, a strong tradition existed within the Jewish mindset that when God entered the temple, He did so by descending the Mount of Olives and entering the Eastern Gate and that the Messiah would do so as well. In a first century Jewish mindset, it would be hard to miss what Jesus was teaching about His identity through His actions and associations with the mount of Olives. All of the traditions surrounding this special location were fulfilled in Him demonstrating that He was not only the Messiah, but God Himself. Jesus who is God and the Messiah, and the High Priest, and the King did all these things, and much more. But, “if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25)



REFERENCES


1. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-mount-of-olives

2. https://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/tours/mount-olives/legacy-tours-mount-olives

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Gate_(Jerusalem)

4. https://web.archive.org/web/20030822231105/http://www.amyisrael.co.il/brijnet/aje/j3000/gates/golden.htm

5. https://free.messianicbible.com/feature/the-mount-of-olives/

6. http://www.margaretbarker.com/Papers/OurGreatHighPriest.pdf

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