The Rev. Irina Dubinski

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection by Eugène Burnand (1850 – 1921)

The Garden of Easter

Sometimes, I like to wonder, which biblical character do I resemble in his or her response to the mystery of God? Today’s gospel account alone showcases quite a variety of human personalities. We read that Mary Magdalene saw the tomb first, but was prudent not to go alone (after all, since if grave robbery had occurred, the criminals could still be there), whereas John ran faster than Peter, yet was afraid to go in even with others; and Peter, well, he was a slower runner, but more decisive about entering. Still, neither man lingered once it became apparent that there was nothing to see, but Mary stayed, as though she expected something more to happen, or maybe she was simply unable to decide what to do next. Which character reminds you most of yourself?

Well, at least in this account, it turns out that staying with the mystery, and being open to seeing if there’s a bit more to find out, may be rewarded. To Mary, who lingered, the Lord granted the privilege of the first post-resurrection conversation with him. But, until she knew more, she supposed him to be a gardener. I was puzzled by that logic: why would Mary think that he was a gardener on the basis of him presumably having removed the dead body? (Not something that gardeners do, even if there was a garden in that burial ground.) A mistake? And if so, whose – Mary’s, or that of the evangelist?

Far from a mistake, to me it is a surprisingly good analogy. Maybe, it’s spring time; but, the gardening set of metaphors has always spoken to me much more powerfully than any of the economic, legal, transactional, or appeasement theories of why Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Faith itself is the ultimate “evidence of things unseen” (Heb 11). It testifies to the invisible reality, rather than requiring proof in order to thrive. In this regard, faith is similar to a garden, in which we work hard long before it looks like anything at all is happening. Both faith and gardening involve trusting in the processes that take place unseen, underground, in secret; and even the above-ground growth is incremental and imperceptible from day to day. The work is physical, earthy, intimate, patient, slow to see gains, uncertain, and dependent on many factors apart from our efforts. New growth is fragile and susceptible to pests, while cutting away is as important as planting (though Will and I disagree on this one, when it comes to doing our own gardening!)

But, a garden truly is that place where new life emerges out of that which dies. Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). And in Paul’s letters, we find the earliest written expressions of faith in Jesus as both the first fruit of new life (1 Cor 15:20/23) and the gardener who creates and cultivates it (15:22). Who, in the Beginning, created the garden, planted the seeds of all life, and made it a space where life would be nourished by the light of His presence. Everything was made good, including what makes humans unique in all of Creation: reason, self-awareness, free will. Yet, at some point, a shift took place in our cognition, which is the same shift that occurs in the mind of each child as she emerges from infancy. On the positive side, we become better able to contemplate our God-given purpose. On the other hand, we also begin to consider our knowledge of good and evil as sufficient to further our own purposes for us. As a result, we misuse our good faculties -- leadership, love, ambition, justice; and turn these gifts into forces harmful to creation -- control, lust, greed, cruelty. This is what we call “sin”, and it is in that sense that Adam was a rather unskilled gardener, who let the first verdant garden fall into ruin.

The ancient lie he heard in the Garden was, “eat of the fruit, and you will become like God”. What makes this lie more convincing is that it is a partial truth. The full truth is that the purpose of our existence has always been to become like God – not because we could seize it secretly and apart from God, but because He had already invited us to do so. The full knowledge of good and evil, and everlasting life that stems from it, is in the acknowledgement that all that the Father has, is already ours (like the father said to the brother of the prodigal son). Jesus, whom Paul calls second Adam, came into this world to embody this truth, teach us about it, and thereby, to become the successful gardener of God’s creation. Of course, openly talking about being like God and living life like he really was, enraged the evil presence around him, and got him killed. In this, he was not alone, as throughout human history, many have suffered for doing what’s right. Yet, this is the very thing we are called to, out of the victory already secured for us in Jesus. For the garden of Eden has become the garden of Easter. 

So, next time someone asks you questions about what you believe and why we celebrate Easter, as people tend to do around our principal holidays, gardening might give you some answers. Be that as it may, every analogy has its limits. Eventually, Mary moved past her initial assumption. What caused her to do so? It is at the sound of her name that Mary is said to have recognized Jesus for who he was. May we continue to keep our minds and ears open to the moments when God speaks our names. When he reiterates his personal invitation to us to participate in the cosmic victory of Christ. As we do, we will at times struggle to move all sorts of stones that keep us inside the dark caves of habits, influences, and pressures. But, our faith will help us roll the stones away. So, let us now go in peace, and follow Chris into the Galilee of this life, and the Garden which lies beyond. Amen.