Gethsemane! How sacred the memories this word recalls; how deep the emotions it stirs; how tender the consolations it breathes; how human the sympathies it reveals; how solemn the mysteries it suggests!
Gethsemane as a place is almost forgotten in Gethsemane as a revelation. It is lost sight of in the event, it is eclipsed by the doctrine. In mere place there can be no actual sanctity. Yet if there be one spot more than another which, from its associations, may be regarded as holy ground, that spot, next to the Calvary of Sacrifice and to the Olivet of Ascension, is the Gethsemane of Grief.
Many traditional sites are untrustworthy; but there can be no doubt that the Kedron valley, near the road from Jerusalem to Bethany, was the scene of the Savior's agony and bloody sweat. Just beyond the water-course, at the foot of Olivet, is a small plot of ground enclosed by a rough ancient wall, under the care of the monks of a small adjoining convent. This spot, during many centuries, has had undisputed possession of the name. Within it are some very large olive trees, partly decayed from extreme age. Around it are similar trees of gigantic growth and venerable antiquity. Though not themselves standing at the time of our Lord, they may be the outgrowth of the very trees under which He wept and prayed. The name indicates that olive trees abounded there, Gethsemane meaning "Oil-press," and typically suggesting the pouring forth of the sacred oil of faith and patience, under the pressure of grief. Among these hoary eloquent witnesses of sacred history, the path still leads to Bethany.
The garden is within a few hundred paces of the city-gate. Emerging from the narrow streets and closely-clustered dwellings, after a few minutes of rapid descent we are in a wooded solitude, and in the silence of night feel as much withdrawn from the world as if in a wilderness. The only sign of being near a city is the wall of massive stones stretching far away southward on the crest of the rocky ridge, until it ends in the sharp angle that marks the limit of the Temple area. Opposite us is Olivet, rising not much higher than Mount Zion over against it. The silent stars twinkle through the foliage, and the moon casts broad shadows from the great trunks as in the olden time.
During nearly two millenniums devout pilgrims have visited the spot; and in many cases, though with a great admixture of ignorant superstition, yet also with true and loving reverence, mourning for the sins that made the Savior mourn, and offering Him the tribute of penitential tears and grateful praise. At the present day, from all parts of Christendom, disciples resort there to kneel where Jesus knelt, to pray where Jesus prayed. Sometimes in the congenial fellowship of "two or three" they have experienced that Real Presence which their Lord promised to all who in any place "meet together in His name;" and as each in turn may lead the devotion of the rest, the voice trembles and sentences become broken syllables, until emotion chokes utterance; and when in subdued tones they join in some familiar hymn, one voice fails and then another, until the anthem is lost in sobs more expressive than song.
Or it may be that, apart from all companionship, the pilgrim finds some sequestered nook, where, unobserved, he kneels where he thinks Jesus may have knelt, and as his tears fall on or near the very ground moistened by the Savior's agony, he adores the love that did not refuse the cup that was so bitter, and offers for himself with aided resignation the great Exemplar's prayer—Father, may Your will be done.
The writer can never forget such visits; especially a recent one, in company with "two or three" fellow-servants of the Master. It was near Easter-time. The moon was shining brightly, as when Jesus went there on that eventful eve of the Passover. Passing out of the Jaffa gate we walked around the northern wall, close to the rocky mound now considered to be the very Calvary of the crucifixion, with the old garden at its foot, in which is an ancient sepulcher recently discovered. Then descending the ravine of the Kedron, in utter silence and solitude we knelt and prayed beneath a huge olive-tree; and after meditating there on the great Sacrifice, ascended the Mount of Triumph and Ascension, where, beholding, bright in the moon's reflected radiance, Jerusalem on the one side and the Dead Sea on the other, the eye of faith was raised to the Eternal Light, His more dazzling glory veiled as the Man of Sorrows, irradiating with love His Church, the New Jerusalem, and making even the Sea of Death a pathway of splendor.
Not all may enjoy the privilege of visiting these scenes; but all may experience everywhere, the spiritual presence of Jesus in their hearts. Yet there may be spots specially endeared by such communion. Jesus loved Gethsemane. John says of the garden, that "Jesus often resorted there with His disciples." Luke says, that "He went as He was accustomed to the Mount of Olives." The road went past the garden; and Luke records, that when Jesus arrived at a certain spot He tarried with His disciples. It was not necessary to name what was so familiar, the place of confidential communion and prayer—"When He had come to the place."
Here our Lord often retired from the crowds and controversies of the city. In the loneliness and silence He was better able to confer with His chosen disciples, to answer their inquiries, to calm their anxieties, to prepare them for approaching trial, and especially to hold communion with His heavenly Father. Here He often sought needful help for the bitter anguish He foresaw in that very garden. The traitor was in no difficulty as to where the Victim might be found. If no longer in the upper chamber or at Bethany, then assuredly in Gethsemane. Judas had often been there with the rest, a witness to the piety, wisdom, sympathy, and tenderness of Him he now was selling to His foes for thirty pieces of silver! How terribly suggestive of privileges abused, of wickedness intensified, the simple fact—"Judas knew the place!"
In all ages, to the hearts of many of His disciples, there have been places specially endeared whence prayers more frequent and earnest than elsewhere have ascended, and tears more copiously welling up from hidden depths have fallen—some place which has witnessed spiritual struggles more severe—some Bethel where the stone of trial has proved a pillow of comfort, and the dark night has revealed the heavenly ladder with its ministering spirits—some Peniel where God has met His struggling child—some Gethsemane where, with sweetest consolation, has been tasted the bitterest cup, and where that cup has taught the most precious lessons of filial submission; where angels have come to strengthen, and the fear of death has been vanquished, and the once suffering but now exalted Savior has made us also "more than conquerors," and imparted "the peace that passes all understanding."
It may be the accustomed place in the house of God, or the corner of the chamber where prayer is accustomed to be made; it may be some sequestered grove in the forest, or cleft in the mountain, or garden-nook; it may be "under the fig-tree," like that of Nathanael, or in the shadow of some oak or maple tree, ancient as those olive trees of Gethsemane—the special locality matters not; but beautiful or famous as other spots may be, there is none so sacredly dear as the place hallowed by frequent communion with heaven. No need to mark on the map what is deeply engraved on the heart. No need of plan to guide the steps, no need of any name; we "know the place." Though everywhere "He who is a Spirit" will meet with all who seek Him "in spirit and in truth," yet if we feel devotion increased by the sacred associations of some particular spot, we need not fear to be reproved by Him who often resorted to Gethsemane to meditate and pray.
PLACES OF PRAYER
ABRAHAM—built an altar—Gen. 12:8.
And he went to Bethel, into the place of the altar, and there called on the Name of the Lord.—Gen. 13:4.
JACOB—This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And he called the name of that place Bethel.—Gen. 28:17.
DAVID—Lord, I have loved the habitation of Your house, and the place where Your honor dwells.—Ps. 26:8.
DANIEL—His windows being open in his chamber towards Jerusalem, Daniel kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.—Dan. 6:10.
PAUL—We went out of the city by a river-side, where prayer was accustomed to be made.—Acts 16:13.
Jesus—When Jesus was at the place named Gethsemane, He says to His disciples, Sit here, while I shall pray yonder. . . . Jesus ofttimes resorted there with His disciples. —Matt. 26:36; John 18:2.