image of jerusalem 2013

The Humble Olive Tree!
"Noah waited another seven days and sent out the dove again. It returned to him in the evening with a fresh olive leaf in its beak" - Gn 8: vv 10-11[a].

15 November   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

A joint Christian-Muslim delegation met last week with Mary Robinson, UN Human Rights Commissioner, who was in Israel and Palestine on a fact-finding mission about possible Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza during the latest confrontations. In the discussion that ensued, Father Raed Abusahlieh of the Latin Patriarchate, one of the participants at the meeting, referred to the importance of the olive tree for Palestinians.

Indeed, anyone who has travelled in the Holy Land knows that olive trees are omnipresent. On the hillsides and across the valleys, one can see hundreds of them dotting the landscape. Through the hot and dry summer months, they are often the only greenery to be seen for miles on end. In Jerusalem, despite the relentlessly long and rain-free months, the olives manage to grow and ripen. When everything else in this land is almost lifeless, the olive trees are ready for harvest.

How does this happen? For one thing, the trees have remarkably deep roots that tap the water which runs far beneath the soil. This provides them with a source which most of the other plant life in the region cannot reach. For another, the leaves allow the trees to draw in and retain the moisture of the early morning dew. That small daily moisture is essential for the nurturing and growth of the olives. These two factors help create a tree which can produce fruit in the harsh summer season, and give abundantly at harvest time in autumn when all else is seemingly barren. Olive trees are firm.

This firmness brings to my mind a New Testament passage from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul writes, “Since you have accepted Christ Jesus as Lord, live in union with him. Keep your roots deep in him, build your lives on him, and become stronger in your faith, as you were taught” [Col 2: vv 6-7(a)]. We know the world is often a difficult and challenging place. Yet, we are called to be just like the olive tree, to let our roots reach down, to deepen our relationship with God and humankind, so that we can receive life-sustaining encouragement and nourishment. And just as the olive tree gratefully receives the early morning dew, we too need to be aware of the gifts of grace which God provides to strengthen us - whether that gift lies in a tremulous smile, a kindly word, the squeeze of a hand, the advice of a caring friend, the unquestioning hospitality of a stranger or even the aid of an ‘enemy’ at a moment of personal peril.

But it is hard, is it not? Every day, newspapers, radios and television screens across the world are full of depressing news fed to increasingly information-hungry consumerist societies. With the Intifada of Al-Aqsa, the past six weeks have become even more compelling in their negative intensity. With all the deaths and injuries of the unequal battles being waged between Palestinians and Israelis, the news outlets have been replete with graphic - and often mind-numbing - details about pain, bereavement, sorrow and suffering.

Being faithful disciples of Christ in a broken, wounded and bleeding world is an arduous and trying task. We need to develop the eyes and ears that help us to perceive God’s presence even when so much around us seems to deny it. It is so easy to voice despair, to court surrender, to turn bitter and to sink into defeat. It is equally easy to avoid seeing that which is being ostensibly offered to us. But to achieve that sentient quality of communion and communication, we also need to develop the tools that equip us to fight for our faith. And that in itself is a formidable task, because it is almost inevitably an uphill struggle that needs firmness, steadfastness and outreach in our own journey on earth.

The Book of Genesis tells us the story of the dove that brings back to Noah a fresh olive leaf in its beak to let him know that the flood had subsided. As such, the olive tree has become a harbinger of good news in our lives. But the olive tree is also associated with Jesus’ Passion, as much as being a universal symbol of peace and a national symbol for Palestine - just like the cedar tree is the national symbol of Lebanon. This is why the Palestinians are so upset at the numbers of olive trees that have been felled down by Israel - either for security reasons or to build new settlements. There are estimates that Israeli bulldozers swept away around 260,000 trees - many of them olive trees - during the earlier Intifada.

In the final analysis, I believe that if we manage to achieve in our own lives a firmness of faith and a level of spiritual accessibility that overcome adversity, then much like that humble olive tree, we will be able to produce abundant fruit.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   15 November


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