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Bishop Denis’ address at the final evening of the Zoom Gatherings for Lent in Naas Parish

‘Walking in Faith Together’ – Naas Parish Prayer for Lent 2023:              23.03.23

From the heat and fire of the Upper Room

Jesus sets out for the moonlit cool

Of a garden, a favourite haunt,

With olive trees, gnarled with lepers’ limbs

Gethsemane – ‘oil press’ in Aramaic

To spend one last hour in prayer

Before darkness descends

Himself pressed and near crushed

By the breath of death

Enveloping him like a coastal fog

Rolling in to conquer the land.”

We find ourselves in Gethsemane on this third ‘Walking in Faith Together’ evening. Gethsemane as we are told in the poem I just read is Aramaic for ‘oil press’. You find Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, today it is an enclosed grove of eight olive trees where the roads to Jericho and Bethany diverge. It would have been a place well known to Jesus and his disciples, stopping off on the way to or from the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But tonight Gethsemane is not just one of those regular stop offs, it’s a dark place, as Jesus worries about what lies ahead.

The artist Vincent Van Gogh captures olive trees splendidly in his aptly named painting ‘Landscape with Olive Trees’. I love his paintings but particularly this one because it shows how entangled the roots of these olive trees are. Their ability to root, grow, bear fruit and sustain themselves in the dry, rocky soil of the Mediterranean, evokes something of the resilience of the trees themselves. Van Gogh’s painting expresses the spirit of the olive tree, the gnarled trunks that exist for centuries and their branches buffeted and twisted by the wind until they resemble, at least for me, waves where we should never find waves. An olive tree renews itself from its roots, resurrects itself after fires and earthquakes. Nothing will stop the growth of a wild olive tree. Gethsemane was full of them, that night and tonight.

The olive tree produces a fruit known for its oil. When we are sipping our G&T maybe over Easter or making a salad we add in olives, saying as my mother might say “they are good for you”. Jesus chose a garden of olive trees to spend his last few hours in prayer, not a monastery or even a poustinia, but an arid rocky garden with some olive trees. He knew that we as Church would need the oil of the olive to sustain our faith. Oil plays a significant role in our faith. In eleven days’ time we will gather for our Chrism Mass here in the Cathedral in Carlow where the oils that keep the engine of the liturgical and pastoral arm of the Church ticking will be blessed and consecrated. Oils used for welcoming, for healing, for sustenance, for resilience – oils to keep us energised walking our faith journey.

In the garden of Gethsemane we have a privileged glimpse into Jesus’ extreme personal struggle to complete his journey which he knew he must walk. He was aware of what lay before him and must have wrestled fiercely with the prospect of being a living sacrifice. He was in a dark place, vulnerable and so are we so often, but we hide our greatest vulnerabilities, sometimes all the more from family and friends. ‘What would they think of me?’ ‘How would they judge me?’ ‘I couldn’t let them see me as I really am’.

This evening all of us are offered hope. When we are faced with difficulties, with challenges, with a crisis we would rather avoid, we should instead turn to God with whom we are never left on our own. He is always by our side and so often carrying us.

Walking in Faith Together’ – Walking isn’t always about moving; it may be that moment on our knees, in our chair, lying on our bed and our prayer: ‘Father let your will, not mine be done’. Surrendering to His will is running the marathon journey, but it mightn’t even require one step. Like the olive tree in Van Gogh’s painting, may we realise we have deep roots, we have fractured bits and pieces, but we have a creator God who loves us and is only waiting to comfort us with the soothing balsam of his grace and mercy. Amen