The slow growth of olive trees forces us to look to the future and consider what kind of world we are leaving our descendants.
The olive tree — the tree of peace, a symbol so desperately needed in these times of war and diaspora. It was an olive branch the dove brought to Noah in Genesis. Two olive trees flank a gold lampstand in Zechariah 4. “I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God,” David marvels in Palms. Anointing oil continues to be honored in sacred rites and rituals.
In America, the olive tree is an enduring legacy left by the Franciscan missionaries who established the California Missions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. To this day those olive trees continue to thrive, and are so familiar in the Golden State it is easy for these spiritually rich trees to be overlooked. Indeed, California nurseries refer to them as the Mission Olive tree. Planting olive trees was just one way St. Junípero Serra and his companions were continuing a long tradition of propagating the faith.
References to the olive tree, its fruit and its oil abound in Scripture, and take on heightened significance in the life of Jesus, particularly as he undergoes his Passion. The Garden of Gethsemane is at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus and the apostles went on the night he was betrayed (Matthew 26:30). It was there where the Ascension took place (Acts 1:9-12). And it is there where olive trees continue to grow, some nearly a millennia old.
It is not a simple task to produce oil from olives, but a process of great pressure and strength. In the time of Jesus, a millstone crushed the olives in a press. Then oil was extricated from the pulp. Beyond the physical location of the Mount of Olives, then, the olive press reflects the great suffering endured by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22:44).
In Hebrew, after all, Gethsemane means “olive press.”
In Romans 11, St. Paul draws on the olive tree to warn gentiles not to “boast” or be “arrogant” in sharing “in the rich root of the olive tree,” that is, Israel (Romans 11:17). It is that root which supports you, Paul says a verse later. He was not pulling the analogy out of thin air — as a Jew, he knew well the prominence of the olive tree in his faith. A gentile from Rome, on the other hand, might not at first glance understand or appreciate the deep meaning of a tree whose physical appearance is rather unremarkable. And yet, Italy eventually became one of the world’s largest producers of olive oil in modern times.
But it is its esteemed place in the Holy Land to which we return. Upon his Holy Land visit in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI planted an olive with President Shimon Peres of Israel. In addition to peace, the olive branch suggests recovery, reconciliation and healing. Is it too naive to suggest a joint effort among Christians and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, to plant an olive tree together? If for no other reason than to look beyond the immediate and towards a hopeful future?
Olive trees are known for their long growth period, so much so that one who plants a tree will never live to sit underneath it and enjoy its shade. Rather, its planters throughout the centuries were thinking not of themselves, but of future generations.
Olive trees, then, can help us renew our memory and identity while their slow growth forces us to look to the end: What kind of world are we leaving our descendants? Pope Francis once recalled meeting a farmer who talked about pruning his olive trees with obvious love, like a father has for his family. The farmer was the father, and the trees were his children.
Perhaps the olive trees planted now will survive long past today’s wars and conflicts, sending people from their homes, their lives upside down. And perhaps children caught in today’s crossfire and trapped in today’s warzones will one day sit under those same trees, feel the summer breeze and rustling leaves, and climb their gnarled branches, unburdened by the inhumane threats that so distract us today.