Today was a free day and I chose to venture out to see the Mount of Olives. Normally it is suggested that you take a taxi to the top and then walk down. However, I decided I’d rather get some exercise and walk to the top. I started my trek by walking down across the Kidron Valley (that still sounds cool to say). There I visited the Garden of Gethsemane. There are a couple different sites that commemorate the events that took place on the night of Jesus’ arrest. The garden itself consists of 8 olive trees fenced off that probably are 2000 years old. The way some of these trees look, it’s not too hard to imagine them being that old.
Inside the Church of the Agony, or the Church of All Nations as it is also called, is the Rock of the Agony. This is the rock upon which Jesus prayed in agony before being arrested. Back outside there is a larger filed of olive trees known as the Garden of Olives and here there is preserved the Grotto of Gethsemane. This is the cave in which the apostles waited/slept while Jesus prayed. It was also here that Judas betrayed Jesus. Under the altar in the chapel you can see statues of the sleeping apostles. As I walked through these sights I was struck by the repeated phrase, “Sustinete Hic Et Vigilate Mecum,” “Stay here and keep watch with me.” It was written on the fencing, in the mosaics on the walls, and many other places. I really did want to stay and just pray, but it was my first stop and I knew that I would come back in the next few weeks.
So I continued on and next visited what is known as “The Tomb of the Virgin”. There is a tradition that says that when Mary died/fell asleep the apostles were instructed by an angel to take her body to a tomb on the Mt. of Olives and there keep watch. It was from here that she was assumed into heaven. You enter this church by going down a long flight of stairs to an underground cave church. Here is preserved, much like in the Holy Sepulcher, the empty tomb in which Mary was supposedly laid. As I arrived, the Armenians were beginning Divine Liturgy and I decided that I wanted to stay and pray Morning Prayer here. It was a Saturday in Ordinary Time, so I took the allowed option of celebrating the office in honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. I don’t know if this was really the tomb of Mary, it certainly could be, but I know that I felt close to Our Lady there and found it a very nice place to pray.
From the Tomb of the Virgin I began the steep part of the ascent. On the way up I passed the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene. It is the one with the onion-shaped gold domes that you see in some of my pictures. Unfortunately, it’s only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I continued on up. After a nice climb I reached one of the nicest places on the entire Mount of Olives, the church of Dominus Flevit (literally “The Lord Wept”). This church commemorates the place in the Bible where Jesus stopped and wept over ancient Jerusalem, “soon to be destroyed for its lack of faith”. The church itself is not all that impressive inside (the outside is designed interestingly in the shape of a tear), but the main draw about this church is the view. You have the best view of the Temple Mount and the city of Jerusalem from this point.
Here’s one final neat fact about this church. It’s built on top of two other churches like normal but both of those churches face the opposite direction, away from the city and back into just the hillside of the Mount of Olives. This is because there was a long standing tradition that churches be built facing east so as to welcome the rising sun representing the resurrection and the return of the messiah. Well, when the modern architect designed the new church in the 50’s he decided that the view to the west was just too good to pass up and wanted to celebrate Mass facing the city in the way Jesus would have observed the city from this point. To make a long story short, the bishop did not approve of facing the church to the west. It had to face east according to the tradition. The architect submitted. However, he then built the church facing west toward the city just as he had planned. When the bishop saw the church he immediately confronted the architect pointing out that the church faced west instead of east. The architect retorted that in the fact the church did face east. Clearly the church faced west so the bishop was perplexed. The architect asked the bishop what he saw through the window of the church. As you can see from the picture below, the Dome of the Rock is prominent, but the central axis of the church is actually pointed directly at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Upon pointing this out to the bishop, the architect proudly stated that the church doesn’t just face east, but actually faces Easter.
After taking many pictures of the Temple Mount I continued up to the very top of the Mount of Olives. Near the summit is the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father). This is the traditional location where Jesus taught the apostles the Our Father. I didn’t get to stay here very long because they were closing, but I did see the ruins of the original church and an early tomb. The neat thing about this church is that they have the Our Father in every language imaginable on large tile displays all around the church. I will have to go back here when I can spend more time in the church which I didn’t really get to see before they kicked me out.
At this point I was almost to the top of the mountain. After just a bit more climbing I reached the summit and my final destination, the Mosque of the Ascension. The Muslims took it over at some point because I think the Christians didn’t take care of it. At any rate, it turns out that it’s not really much to speak of. It’s just a small little round building that is completely empty inside. It’s not even open normally; I had to get a Muslim to open it so I could see it. It supposedly marks the place of the ascension of Jesus into heaven. As a little “memento” of the event, they have a stone in the floor inside the mosque that is supposed to be the last footprint of Jesus on earth. I don’t have any problem this time saying that I really don’t think I believe the story. The fact that the “footprint” (which looks nothing like a footprint) was left in what appears to be 4th century marble was my first clue. Despite the doubtful footprint and lack of a church sufficiently dignified, I must say that I was surprised by the fact that I had a very prayerful experience there. As I stood looking up at the simple brick dome, I felt a great longing for the coming of Jesus. The words of the angels spoken to the disciples at the Ascension came to mind, “This Jesus will return to you.” Being at this place helped to stir up my longing for the coming of God’s kingdom. The Muslim who opened the place for me was ready for me to go, but I left with the words “Marana Tha” on my lips, Come Lord Jesus!
I wondered over to the Russian Church of the Ascension which is also on top of the hill, but it is only open Tuesdays and Thursdays (something about these Russian churches). By this time the morning was gone and I needed to get back down the hill for Mass. So, completing my backward circuit, I took a cab back down the hill and arrived home just in time. What a great morning. Scripture tells us that Jesus frequently spent time on the Mount of Olives and I know I will need to spend much more time there in the coming weeks.
P.S. There are so many pictures that I took of things that I couldn’t even take time to describe here. Please feel free to follow the link below if you’re interested.