LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION COLUMN FOR
November 29, 2014 by William H. Scarle, Jr. 813-835-0129
Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent. The commercial world has already gone bonkers and the sales are ubiquitous. The counsel to “Keep Christ in Christmas” will be a major theme in Christendom for the next four weeks. Some will heed the call. Some will not even be able to receive the transmission since their receptors are not tuned into any frequency that could pick it up.
In 1977 I worked in the Negev Desert in southern Israel on an archeological dig during the summer. Before returning home I stopped at a Christian shop near where I was staying the night and purchased a lovely olive wood fourteen piece nativity set. It has been our family’s center piece for the Christmas season. However, I am alone again, and this Christmas I took it to the church to be used in a way that more of my spiritual family could enjoy it.
Sometimes we forget that Israel was once a Christian society. When Constantine became emperor of Rome he advocated for the Christians and built beautiful Christian churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Christian Byzantine civilization in Israel lasted from 333 A.D. until the Arab conquest in 636 A.D.
The olive tree has always been important in the Middle East. As far back in Bible history as the story of Noah the dove who carried the olive branch back to the Ark after the storm has been a symbol of peace. The olive tree enters the story of the Gospel as Jesus prayed on the night before his crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is the Hebrew for an oil press. The garden was located on the Mount of Olives. Paul uses the olive tree in his illustration of God’s provision for the Gentiles inclusion in the divine covenants (Rom. 11).
After the building of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in about 325 A.D. the Greek Orthodox monks taught the resident Christians to carve the olive wood into scenes from the nativity of Jesus, crosses, and various other Christian symbols. Olive wood carving became the major industry of Bethlehem. In the 16th and 17th centuries under the tutelage of Italian and Franciscan artisans the carving became even more refined.
One of the sad consequences of the Arab and Jewish conflict in Israel is the depopulation of Christians from Bethlehem. The industry still exists but is under extreme pressure since it is primary a Christian undertaking.
Olive wood is easy to carve, but the carvers need to do long range planning because the wood needs to be aged for a long period of time. If the carving is done on new wood it has a tendency to split.
Today some machinery is used for the rough cutting of the various figures. However, the detail work has to be done by experienced artists. My figure of Jesus and Peter as the Lord rescues him from sinking in the Sea of Galilee is very fine work.
The olive wood figures always take me back to Bethlehem. If you are looking for a unique gift for a special person for Christmas use your computer and find a source for olive wood carvings from Bethlehem. The Christian community there could use your encouragement.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org) END-whs