April 6, 2010

Life or Death in a Garden

By Fr. Scott Homer

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

There are three witnesses of the empty tomb in St. John’s account: Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciple (whoever he may be), and Peter. They have at various points in the narrative come to the tomb, witnessed the burial cloths still there but the body of Jesus gone. But St. John’s focus, and our focus this morning is on Mary Magdalene. This is the Mary that had traveled with Jesus and his followers for a long time. She had been possessed, we are told, by seven demons and she first met Jesus when he cast the demons out, and restored her to sanity and good health.

On the first day of the week, Mary roses early and she went to the garden. The accounts of the first resurrection sightings take place in a garden. We know this to be true because St John tells us, in chapter 19, verse 41, that, “In the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” And so Mary rises early and she goes to the garden—a garden devoted to life and beauty. She goes to a garden looking for the dead remains of Jesus. Interesting that Mary goes looking for death in the midst of life.

Gardens play an important role in the Scriptures. In fact, the first accounts of humanity and their relationship with God take place in a garden. We are told that God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve. Jesus prayed before his arrest in a garden. And at the end of time, after the world is put right and Jesus is reigning on his throne, it is in a garden where we find the saints dwelling eternally. In fact the whole creation account, that long account of the creation of planet earth, and all the plants and animals that God has placed upon it, is the account of a very large, very intricate, and very spectacular garden being designed, created and maintained by the our God—the Great Gardener.

That’s the thing about gardens. By definition gardens are cultivated places. A garden must be tended. It requires an overseer. It requires a gardener. He sets boundaries around it, builds walls and fences to protect it. He decides on its design and arrangement. He cultivates the ground, plants the seeds in the places he knows they will best prosper. He cares for the tender shoots, trains up the young plants, prunes and shapes the more mature plants until finally the garden is complete and able to grow, until it finally bursts forth in flower, and the flower gives way to fruit and the gardener reaps a harvest. All of the gardener’s plans, all his efforts are intended to bring the garden into bloom and to reap a harvest.

Mary goes to a garden and in this garden there is a tomb. A tomb seems like an odd thing to be in a garden. I mean, a garden is a place devoted to life. A tomb is a place devoted to death and for most of us there is a firm line of demarcation between life and death—life is where we enjoy ourselves—death is where we…well, don’t enjoy ourselves. Life is where we receive all the sensory input that pleases us and death is well, not that place. We go to gardens to enjoy life. Gardens are places where seed is planted, where plants are cultivated, where flowers bloom and fruit is born. We go to gardens seeking life. We go to cemeteries and tombs seeking death, just like Mary did. But in the resurrection accounts, the followers of Jesus have to go into this garden to find the tomb where Jesus’ body has been laid. It seems that God knew that Jesus’ disciples would not understand the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection unless they witnessed it in a garden.

God places the glorious resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord in a garden because God knows that gardens are the perfect teaching tool. Gardens are born in just the same way that our new lives in Christ are born—through death and resurrection. Gardens are designed and built around a thousand little passions. Gardens take their life, get their color and bring fruit out of new life emerging from little tombs. Every time a gardener punches a hole in the soil, and drops a dead seed into that hole, the gardener has created a tomb, placed a dead lifeless thing into it, and sealed the tomb. What better frame could God provide for the most spectacular event, the most important event in the history of the world? In the garden Jesus’ resurrection makes perfect sense.

But seeing it for the first time, who would believe that placing a dead seed in a dead hole and covering it with dead dirt would generate life? That after a few days new life would come bursting out of the dead ground? It is beyond comprehension and yet we all know it is true. We can’t understand it but we see it happening all around us. We say it is too fantastic that Jesus should rise from the dead. Doubters think the resurrection claims are absurd, and yet how many of us will be planting seeds in our gardens over the next few weeks expecting plants to emerge—not hoping beyond hope that a miracle might occur but fully convinced that a plant will spring forth out of the dead ground precisely where we buried it?

Mary came to the tomb expecting to find death—or whatever it is we find when we focus our attention on death. And when she does not find the remains she sought, she begins to look around for them someplace else. She recruits help. The help looks and confirms what she already knows and they quickly abandon the project and return to their homes but not Mary. Mary is so devoted to finding the dead body of Jesus that when she sees Jesus alive, and he is standing right there with her, she does not even recognize him. She is so convinced that he is dead that she thinks he must be someone else. Why do we find it so difficult to believe? Why are we so devoted to making death an absolute that can not be overcome? I don’t have the answer. I only know that even the great saints who have devoted their lives to cultivating a relationship with Jesus and who know him intimately, are awestruck and overwhelmed by death, just like Mary. We all are. We are devoted to the idea that death is an absolute. And so Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus.

Mary thinks Jesus must be a gardener—interesting—she isn’t able to recognize her Lord—but in some vague way she understands that this person standing before her is someone who is devoted to life, who designs life, who toils to cultivate life, who cares for life, and who brings life forth from the dead soil. Isn’t it ironic that even when Mary gets it wrong, even when she isn’t seeing clearly, she is still witnessing to the truth of who Jesus is? She is unaware that she stands before the resurrected Christ but she thinks the right thought—she labels him correctly. She recognizes she stands before a gardener—or rather, we might say, the One Great Gardener, the one who designs, cultivates, tends and harvests God’s Creation.

Mary does not recognize Jesus as Jesus until He speaks her name. When he speaks and says, “Mary,” then she recognizes her master’s voice. It is when the Lord speaks our name that our eyes are opened to the truth—and the truth is that we spend our lives focused on the wrong things. While we are looking at the likely possibilities and trying to understand our existence based upon the inevitability of dying—while we fear death and design around it, God is doing the impossible. God is bringing new life from dead bodies. When Jesus spoke Mary’s name, and she recognized His voice, and she gazed into his revealed face, then Mary recognized that the impossible had happened, that her Lord had risen from the grave, that his claim that he would be resurrected was true, that life really does triumph over death, that in the hands of the Master Gardener we can hope to spring forth from dead ground.

We will not recognize Jesus as Jesus until He speaks our name. When he speaks our name we will see him for who he is. We will understand that in some way that we can not possibly understand, that does not fit into our world view, in a way that science can not measure, Jesus has conquered death, Jesus stands alive and well, he stands above all the fundamental systems of the universe and He acts in ways that only he can act, using means that only he can access. Jesus Christ does the impossible. And on that day we will understand that we live in a fabulous garden, designed by the Master Gardener and that God specializes in resurrection—the resurrection of his Son first, and then the resurrection of the whole world!

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

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