“I’m sorry, but no one is allowed in the garden area.” The tall Franciscan monk spoke with a firm voice in answer to my request to photograph inside the Garden of Gethsemane. Determined to return another day and try again, I walked down the gradual slope of the Mount of Olives and crossed the top end of Kidron Valley on the way to the old city of Jerusalem.
A paved highway runs down this upper end of the valley; it rises and winds around the base of the Mount of Olives on its way to Jericho. Gethsemane sits to one side of the road, next to the hustle of buses and taxis and donkeys braying with heavy loads of goods on the way to markets of the Old City.
Gethsemane is just a simple grove of trees in a garden on the side of a rocky hill. It is a quiet place, except for the occasional tourist groups and hawking peddlers, and the nearby traffic.
Yet, in this grove of ancient trees one of the most important events in the history of mankind took place. In this little garden the Savior agonized as he suffered for the sins of all the world. He made it possible for us to return to the presence of God. That means that if we repent and live in sweet obedience to the Father’s will, we will not be required to pay the awful debt for the sins we have committed; Jesus did that in Gethsemane.
Leaving Gethsemane, you can easily see old Jerusalem above terraced hillsides. Next to the wall of the city, Arab shepherd boys often bring their sheep and goats to graze in the grass around the Moslem gravestones. Seeing the sheep silhouetted against the sky, it is easy to imagine what it was like here during the Savior’s lifetime.
Further up the hill, the road branches to one side, going up to Saint Stephen’s Gate and the base of the ancient temple mount. Here you can look back at Gethsemane from above. On this particular afternoon, the garden lay half in shadow with the sun glistening in several light-filled corners. A few Arab buses careened noisily around the serpentine curves of the highway below, but the air seemed somehow quiet. There in the stillness of my thoughts, I wondered about the little procession of disciples meandering across the valley toward Gethsemane, the Savior leading them in calm dignity as he approached the terrors of that incredible night.
Darkness falls swiftly in Jerusalem, and soon the blackness of the night was all around me. There was a slight chill in the evening air as I hurried home.
Several days later I arrived after closing time, and the great iron doors to the garden were shut and locked. After much persistent bell ringing, a monk came to the gate and kindly allowed me to enter the empty courtyard. We talked for a minute, and then he surprised me with, “Would you like to go into the garden area?” Taking a handforged key from his belt, he opened the small iron gate that led into the garden.
I wandered along the flower-lined gravel paths, next to the great patriarch olive trees. The color of the red flowers reminded me of the blood that came from every pore of the Savior’s body as he suffered here. The old gnarled and pitted trunks of the olive trees spoke of the struggle and pain of spirit that Jesus felt in this garden. Pondering these things, I didn’t notice the darkness gathering around the garden.
Reverently and privately knelt for a moment, there in Gethsemane, to thank God for the blessing of his Son. The trees were dark and gray as I left them. But looking up toward the city I could see one of its radiant sunsets. Jerusalem, the “City of Gold,” the hope of ages past, present, and future because of the atonement that took place here.