Well, it usually is a day for thanksgiving and rejoicing: but in these extraordinary times the Christian church is forbidden, pretty much world-wide, from holding any kind of celebratory gathering; and I daresay that, although I personally am not seeking to join a virtual get-together, many Christians find it difficult to enter joyfully into the spirit of an on-line or on-air celebration. I find it’s just not the same practising what should be a communal event in the privacy of my own home. Yes, the artistic qualities of the televised play may be higher than those of the live theatre: but the unique quality of being in a live audience is an experience which I don’t get from a television screen.
More prosaically, but on a generally similar theme, Easter Sunday is a day when, typically, I would be part of the horde of eager gardeners thronging the beds and sheds at my local garden centre, or even at more than one of my local garden centres. That pleasure is denied this Easter Sunday, to me and to all the members of the usual gardening brigade. Perhaps this is why, being unable to visit a garden centre or a private garden open to the public as part of the ‘Scotland’s Gardens’ scheme to enjoy its features while at the same time supporting some charitable works, my thoughts turned to what I would suggest is by far the best-known ‘Easter’ garden, the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. This was where, according to the four gospels of the New Testament, Jesus was arrested by the authorities the night before his crucifixion. The name of this place … Gethsemane … means ‘oil press’; and, appropriately, it is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives, for it was the site of what we might call a small industrial unit two millennia ago. The olive trees which supplied its raw materials formed a backdrop to the building holding the press when viewed from downtown Jerusalem; and, although the building was very much on the edge of the olive groves, it was within the boundary of these woods, with the closest trees growing very close to the structure.
I write these words with the confidence of one who has actually been there and had the history of what is now revered by the Christian church as the Garden of Gethsemane explained to me by a local Israeli guide. The area defined as ‘the garden’ is principally occupied by these trees; and it may be that they actually are the self-same trees among which Jesus and his first twelve disciples were wont to go to pray and reflect on life, for olive trees are renowned for their longevity. But I must add that the area which is now revered by the Christian church as the Garden of Gethsemane is one of several sites identified by different religious orders as the ‘real’ location; even modern scholarship has not confirmed which of the four sites … all in close proximity … is the ‘real’ one.
Is it possible that the trees I walked among, or others close by, are two thousand years old? Yes, it is possible - but unlikely. The National Research Council of Italy … the Roman Catholic Church built the Basilica of the Agony in the garden in 1924, explaining the Italian interest … used carbon dating techniques to ascribe three of the trees to the years 1092, 1166 and 1198. Tests revealed that these three trees shared the same DNA, showing they were all offspring of the same parent plant, either because they were grown from cuttings or because they all sprang naturally from the roots of an older tree which may just have been there 2 000 years ago. But I have been assured that the gnarled olive trees at San Vigilio on the shores of Lake Garda are probably about 700 years old; and I suspect that the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane today are the third generation of the family of trees which the disciples knew.