“When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered.” (John 18:1) Since we are now in Great Lent, I wanted to do a piece on a symbolic rendering of this verse; where Jesus is coming from, and where He is going, and how this verse is ultimately a revelation of the Trinity. We will utilize the Rublev icon of the Hospitality of Abraham as our guide. And of course, we will support our position from the writings of the Holy Fathers.
Let us first examine the Rublev icon, also known as the “Trinity” icon. There are three angels depicted. The central figure wears the colors of our Lord, red on the inside, blue on the outside. Even His halo or nimbus is often cruciform — with the Divine Name inscribed therein. He is identified as our Lord Jesus Christ. On the right side of the icon is an angel wearing a green robe, green being the colors of Pentecost. A mountain rises up behind this angel. This angel typologically symbolizes the Holy Spirit, with the mountain a symbol of creation. On the left side is our final angel. The previous two have their heads bowed towards this angel. This angel typologically symbolizes the Father. Behind him is a building. This is a symbol of the temple, or “the house that the Lord built.”
The general flow of the icon is the rising of the temple on the left with the rising of the mountain on the right, which both flank the depression of Christ in the middle.
There is a lot more to say about the Rublev “Trinity” icon, but this will suffice for our purpose. Let us now recount, loosely, what transpired before John 18, all the things that lead us to being told that Christ crossed Kidron brook and entered a garden. Christ has washed the disciples feet and given them the greatest commandments (John 13); Christ reveals the Holy Spirit and the Father to the Apostles (John 14); And Christ prays the “priestly prayer.” (John 17) Though not clear in the Gospel of John, Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22 all have Christ instituting the Eucharist before “coming out, He went to the mount of olives.” (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, Luke 22:39)
While at first glance it does not appear to be so, all four Gospels record the same event, that of Christ crossing the Kidron brook and entering the mount of olives. Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26, and Luke 22:39 all speak of Christ entering the mount of olives, while John 18:1 speaks of Christ crossing the Kidron book and entering a garden. We know from a simple look at a map of Jerusalem that these are all the same, single, event, as the old city of Jerusalem and the mount of olives are separated by the Kidron valley. It is important to note that Jerusalem is also built on a hill.
The general flow of the geography is the rising of the Jerusalem on the left with the rising of the mount of olives on the right, which both flank the depression of Kidron valley in the middle.
Let us return to the Rublev “Trinity” icon, and map this history of events with the symbolism in that icon. Christ celebrated the Passover and instituted the Eucharist, among the washing of the feet, the greatest commandments, revelations of the Father and Spirit, and finally said His priestly prayer all in Jerusalem. St Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says this:
“After having enlightened His disciples, and turned them by suitable instruction to all those things that make for righteousness, and after having bidden them choose the life which is most spiritual and pleasing to God, and besides also promising Himself to fulfill them with spiritual graces, and saying that blessings from the Father above would be showered down upon them, Jesus goes forth readily, not shrinking from the time of His suffering, nor yet fearing to die for all men.”
Notice these are all functions of the priesthood. Priests operate in the temple, or “the house that the Lord built,” and as previously mentioned, the temple being symbolized by the building behind the angel as the typological symbol of the Father. Christ starts in the “house which the Lord built,” which is on the left side of the Rublev “Trinity” icon. He institutes all of the priestly duties, and only then, does He go out from Jerusalem down into the Kidron valley to ultimately end up in the mount of olives, which John records as “a garden.”
There are rather obvious implications of this mapping downward movement: Christ’s condescension coming down in the Incarnation; Christ’s death, burial, and descent into hades; our baptism, uniting us into Christ’s death. And there are, again, some rather obvious implications of this mapping upward movement: Christ’s resurrection and ascent; Christ invites His disciples enter the garden with Him, that is, they are united in His resurrection, and brought into Life.
So what is the symbolic meaning of olive bushes, why does John refer to it as “a garden,” and what is the overarching symbolism of this mapping and the Mount of Olives?
“The olive tree is a symbol of election by grace. The Lord has chosen the people of Israel, as an olive tree from among the wild trees, to be His elect people. Also Elijah and Enoch, who were to be the precursors of Christ’s second advent, are named olive trees. Both of them were seen by the prophet Zechariah and John the Evangelist in visions, how they stood before the throne of glory in the heaven in the form of two olive trees. As an oil giving tree, and as one of the longest living trees of the earth, the olive tree is a symbol of every man of grace, who is shining with truth and charity by the Holy Spirit, and who has rooted himself deep into life eternal. The Psalmist says of himself, “I am a green olive tree in the house of God.” ~St Nikolai Velimirovich, The Universe as Symbols and Signs: An Essay on Mysticism in the Eastern Church
Ss Cyril of Alexandria and Nikolai Velimirovich compliment each other very well here highlighting symbol of the olive tree. The elect of God, first “by suitable instruction to all those things that make for righteousness,” and by choosing “the life which is most spiritual and pleasing to God,” will shine “with truth and charity by the Holy Spirit,” that is, they will bear righteous fruit and have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Though not an Orthodox Saint, Alcuin of York has this to say on the usage of “a garden” in John 18:1:
“Over the brook Cedron, i.e. of cedars. It is the genitive in the Greek. He goes over the brook,i.e. drinks of the brook of His Passion. Where there was a garden, that the sin which was committed in a garden, He might blot out in a garden. Paradise signifies garden of delights.”
So by “a garden,” St John is drawing out that Christ, after instituting the Eucharist, is leading His disciples into paradise. St John had actually foreshadowed this earlier in his Gospel account:
“And everyone went to his own house. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” (John 7:53-8:1) This is the only time St John uses the location ‘mount of olives’, and he does so in reference to houses, that is, to where Christ “lives.” This shows ‘mount of olives’ as a symbol of paradise, since the Logos is constantly on the throne at the right hand of God, the Father.
I want to return to Christ washing the apostles feet, and the historical event depicted in the Rublev icon.
“Moreover he adds, as though speaking to the men, ‘I will bring water, that you may wash your feet.’ Learn from blessed Abraham, brothers, to receive strangers gladly and to wash their feet with humility and piety. Wash, I repeat, the feet of pious strangers, lest there remain in them some dust that they will be able to shake off of their feet to your judgment.” ~St Caesarius of Arles, commentary on Genesis 18
In washing the disciples feet, Christ is drawing a connection to the historical event in Genesis. As St Cyril stated above, Christ is giving instruction into righteous living, while also showing the works and faith of Abraham, and revealing the Trinity. Our Lord, again, foreshadows this when He tells the Jews, “They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” (John 8:39) If the Jews did the works of Abraham, washing the feet of strangers, they would have avoided judgment. They also would have shown the faith of Abraham since they were talking with the Lord Himself.
“Notice, brothers, and see how God appeared to Abraham and how he appeared to Lot. The three men came to Abraham and stood over him; two came to Lot and stayed in the street. Consider, brothers, whether these things did not happen through the dispensation of the Holy Spirit according to their merits. Indeed, Lot was far inferior to Abraham; if he had not been, he would not have merited to be separated from Abraham, nor would the dwelling of Sodom have pleased him. Now the three men came to Abraham at noon, while the other two came to Lot in the evening for this reason: Lot was unable to endure the power of the noonday sun, but Abraham could stand its full brightness.” ~St Caesarius of Arles, commentary on Genesis 18
As spoken about with St Photini at the well, noon time or ‘midday’ has symbolic meaning. Eve partook of the fruit at noon and St Photini bore the midday heat as a type of Divine Justice for her adultery. Here, Abraham bears the burden of another type of ‘Divine Justice,’ that of the Revelation of the Trinity. And so we complete our symbolism of the crossing of the Kidron brook and entering a garden, that is, the Mount of Olives, as a theophany of the Lord. Similar to the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, by Christ fulfilling all the priestly duties, including hearkening back to Abraham, descending into the Kidron valley, “drinks the brook of His Passion,” and ascending the Mount of Olives, what was first only given as typological symbol to Abraham, He initiates the Apostles into the fulfillment of the Mystery of the revelation of the Trinity.