by Ellen Sims
text: John 20: 1-18
This morning we brought bits of blooming, greening things to create the hint of a garden in our chapel. We did so because a garden is where John’s gospel sets the resurrection. The previous chapter describing the crucifixion had explained “there was a garden in the vicinity of where he was crucified . . . and they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41, 42). A garden setting is where WE will encounter the risen Jesus today.
Let’s imaginatively follow Mary Magdalene to the tomb. John provides few visual details of the story’s implicitly lush setting. After all, Mary came to the garden before dawn. She would not have seen much at first since “it was still dark” (John 20:1). Maybe the original hearers of the story could picture in their mind’s eye the moonlit figure of a woman entering through the garden gate. A garden in that place and time was more like something we’d call an orchard enclosed by stone walls. Sometimes it held ancestral tombs carved into rocky crevices. Mary may have followed a pathway through fruit trees, olive trees, and spice trees she might have identified in the dark primarily by their fragrances. Maybe that perfumed atmosphere reminded her of the scented ointment that another Mary–so she had heard–used days earlier to anoint the living Jesus’s feet.
John’s original hearers might have associated the garden (pardes in the Hebrew, parádeisos in the Greek*) with the Garden of Eden and the world as it was created to be and might be even yet. Or they might have called to mind the fertile garden imagery in the Song of Solomon, the ideal setting for lovers. A garden suggested both of these sacred intentions for humanity: life and love.
No wonder that when some segments of Judaism—the Pharisees in Jesus’s day, for example—began developing a concept of an afterlife, they imagined that returning to God might resemble those biblical images of renewed life and pure love. The word garden/paradise came to suggest an existence that continued beyond death. But mainly it meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day the fullness of life here and now. Eternity was a present reality. It consisted of “knowing God and loving one” another in this life and in God’s world. For the Gospel writers the Kingdom of God , not the kingdom of Rome, demanded their devotion and was existing already, yet not fully. Paradise existed in this world because, despite its hardships and terrors, the good earth had been “permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.” No wonder the writer of John’s Gospel chose the garden setting to dramatize the idea that new life was able to emerge from the place of death. No wonder John’s Gospel understands Jesus in metaphors from creation: water, vine, and wind (Brock and Parker 46-47).
It was the image of a verdant garden, in fact, that the first Christian artists used to depict their resurrected Christ. They were inspired by Hebrew prophets like Isaiah who dreamed of a restored Eden where the wolf might dwell with the lamb. Jesus was often pictured as a young shepherd among grazing sheep and as the “new Adam” (Paul’s phrase) in an Edenic setting, he lovingly tending every sort of flora and fauna, fulfilling humanity’s true purposes. Those artists conceptualized Christ as opening up a return to Paradise as God had intended for humanity. (Remember singing in our first hymn that “Christ has opened paradise”?) The drawings in the catacombs and the paintings in the first churches placed the resurrected Jesus in the paradise of Eden. There he is whole and hearty again, surrounded by beautiful animals and vegetation and the four rivers named in Genesis 2. It would take a thousand years before Christian art took Jesus out of the verdant earthly garden that emphasized new life—and put him back on the cross that memorialized—some would say glorified and exploited—his death. This shift in symbolism coincided with the imperial Church’s sanctioning of war and the start of the Crusades during which the cross became a battle flag and call to arms.
The book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire finds in early Christian art the evidence of a shift from its early vision of beauty to one of torture as imperialism became embedded into theology and reflected in art. Saving Paradise documents that for hundreds of years no crucifix was displayed in a meeting place of Christians or hung round the neck of a priest. No ghastly images of Jesus’s agony and death were on display in churches. No attempt was made to turn the instrument of state torture into a religious symbol of veneration. For those who have studied the extant art of the first millennium, the death of Jesus seems not to have been “a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith. The Christ they saw was the incarnate risen Christ who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life.” Paradise/the Garden was the predominating image of early Christian sanctuaries. (Brock and Parker, xi).
Those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth would have no more decorated their meeting places with the dead, bloody body of Jesus hanging from a cross than we today would honor a martyr of the civil rights movement with gruesome replicas of bodies hanging from lynching trees.
What might a theology of the garden—instead of a theology of the cross—produce in us? How can Christ as the Gardener save us? Living on the brink of eco-disaster, we should readily grasp that humanity’s salvation may quite literally depend on our commitment to care for the earth as our sacred garden/paradise.
In terms of our spiritual and emotional lives, Jesus the Gardener offers other means of salvation.
To illustrate that point, let’s pick up the story again as Mary arrives to see, in the dawning light, the stone rolled back from the tomb and the body presumably stolen. She runs to tell Peter and John, who race to see for themselves, enter the tomb to find only the burial linens, and accept her theory that the body had been stolen away. The story implies the men leave in despair.
But Mary remains to weep. In lamenting her loss, in facing into the tomb, she literally and figuratively faces her grief and fear. When we lament deeply, “the veil lifts between the living and the dead” (Brock and Parker 420). John describes what happens next as an angelic visitation. Perhaps in the depths of her spirit, Mary hears this question: “Why are you weeping?” She responds by expressing her love and loss and fear. She opens herself at that moment to an eternity of the “right now” and a paradise of the “right here.”
Then another voice not from inside the tomb this time, not from the place of death, but outside in the garden in the dawning light, asks the same question again: “Why are you weeping?” As often is the case, the question that rocks our world comes from a stranger. His question is one we have to ask over and over again in our lives. And it’s best to answer honestly if we want to go any deeper into the experience and its revelations for us. Perhaps Mary’s response forming in her own mind at last was something like: “Yes, why AM I weeping? Surely there is something that transcends this God forsaken tomb.”
Mary faces into the morning light and replies the presumed gardener, addressing him as “Sir.” Then he speaks her name: “Mary.”
A whole universe of meaning is uttered in a name. She is known! She has been heard. She is loved. She answers back with his right name: “Teacher.” And in his final words to her, the Gardener/Teacher continues to tend and teach: “Don’t stay in this moment, this one experience. Don’t hold onto the past or to this present image of me. Sacred encounters are not occasions for hunkering down but moving forward. There are others in whom you will see me again, Mary. There are other experiences awaiting you in which you will find hope and growth. Next time it might not be the gardener; it might be someone else equally as unexpected through whom I will bring you a word of grace. Look for me in the faces of others, Mary, because I am at one with the Sacred and cannot be held down for one time and place. Now tell the others this story!”
I know there are other stories of rebirth set in gardens or springtime renewal. There are other historic and legendary figures who symbolize life defeating death. But for me, the Easter Story, which is the culmination of the entire Jesus Story, is rich enough and true enough to give my life meaning and guidance and real hope for “saving” all of creation. The Easter story lives on as we retell it and as we enter it. It tells us who we are: beloved children of a God who knows our name. By seeing the resurrected Christ in the garden of paradise, “we can retrieve the Easter story from a death cult and bless this world as sacred soil, as a home all must learn to inhabit together.” With this story we can rekindle early Christian traditions that taught people in the midst of horror and tragedy to resist violence, to honor the earth, to love beauty, and to work for justice and peace in the here and now rather than passively wait for the hereafter. Being Christian requires “strong communities, rituals to train perception, and beauty to hold us and give us joy—so that we may savor and save Paradise” (Brock and Parker 418).
Entering the Easter story—entering the garden by way of the tomb—may also allow us to hear our rightful names spoken, just as the first Adam gave a new name to each animal in Eden, just as baptism traditionally conferred upon new Christians a new name, just as Jesus tenderly called Mary by name. Easter is a chance to be renamed—for individual healing. Easter means a chance to re-author our own personal stories of defeat or judgment, of pain or loneliness or longing—into new and healing stories that may start in a tomb but can open up into a garden and then into a call to tell others.
The Easter story is, of course, interactive. Not in words only do we learn its meaning. We might, in fact, be dubious about some of its details yet fully committed to its purposes and its community. Through ritual, the followers of Jesus continue to participate, quite literally, in the story. We practice what it means to be an Easter people. We practice sharing food and wine in hopes that we get better at sharing in other ways. We practice coming together as equals at the open table so that we remember our oneness in Christ. We practice voicing words of faith because faith does not come easily. We practice in the company of others because this life is not to be lived alone. We practice recalling an old but evolving story in order to help it unfold. We practice at the table the Christian discipline of seeing the face of Jesus in one another, for the Lord’s Supper tells us we ARE the body of Christ. And that body is risen. Alleluia!
PRAYER: Risen Christ, we seek a fresh encounter with your verdant world. May we see you in all that is living and through all of our loving. May we be wise enough to help heal Creation’s injuries. And when we experience a word of hope and a community of acceptance, may we, like Mary, tell others. Amen
* The actual Greek word for garden here (used a total of three times in John) is kepos, not parádeisos, but John’s community would know its synonym and its associations with paradise.
Brock, Rita Nakashima and Rebecca Ann Parker. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.