Returning to the Garden
A sermon preached for Easter Sunday at St. Gregory's Episcopal Church, 4/16/17; John 20:1-18.
Gardens run throughout Jewish and Christian Scripture. Gardens—places where color and fragrance and beauty are cultivated. Gardens, places where the loveliness of creation is tended and focused and concentrated. Our ancient creation story tells us that we began in a garden. John’s Revelation at the end of the New Testament imagines a garden at the end of time in which there are trees with leaves for the healing of the nations. Gardens imagined at the beginning and the end as places where God is one with creation, with the earth, with us.
That great mystical love poem of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs, also imagines a garden where lover and beloved delight in one another: “A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, springing up in flowing streams from Lebanon… Awake, O north wind, and come thou south wind: blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow… I went down into my garden to see the fruits of the valley, and to see if the vines had flowered, and the pomegranates were in blossom.”
And of course the Song of Songs can be read on many levels: this is the garden where a human lover and beloved meet and delight in each other, but it’s also a parable of the garden in which the Divine Lover joins in union with creation, with each of us. And if you remember in the Eden story, we ate the forbidden fruit and were exiled from the garden. But in the Song of Songs, the Lover cries out, “Let my beloved come into the garden, to eat the fruit of the trees that are therein!”—as if God is calling us back, calling us to return.
All of Scripture can be seen as the story of humanity again and again leaving the garden—again and again exchanging love, justice, beauty, delight in creation—exchanging these things for prejudice, oppression, hatred, division, war. Exchanging the Garden for the Wasteland. And the whole of the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus, can be seen as him laying out a program, a path, a way of return to the garden. Perhaps we could even substitute his beloved phrase “the kingdom of God” with “the garden”—“the kingdom of God is like this,” he says. “The garden of God, God’s paradise, is like this... let me show you the way back.”
Our Gospel reading this morning, it picks up where the reading some of us heard on Good Friday left off. At the end of that reading we were told, “They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with spices [—spices, like the spices that flow in the garden in the Song of Songs—]… Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so […] they laid Jesus there.”
Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified. Does that strike any of you as strange, or at least as poetic?—the Garden itself, beauty itself, there in the place where he dies? How can this be?! There’s an ancient tradition in the Church that says Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, occupied the same place where once the Garden of Eden had been—and that the Cross, the Tree on which Jesus was crucified, stood on the very spot where once the Tree of Knowledge had grown—the tree whose fruit expelled us from the Garden. And now on the Cross, Jesus becomes the ripened fruit of a new Tree; but this time we are invited to eat.
There’s a beautiful second century Christian writing, The Gospel of Truth, that put it this way:
He enlightened them and gave them a path. And that path is the truth which he taught them. For this reason error was angry with him, so it persecuted him. It was distressed by him, so it made him powerless. He was nailed to a cross. He became a fruit of the knowledge of the Father. He did not, however, destroy them because they ate of it. He rather caused those who ate of it to be joyful because of this discovery.
This is the fruit that gives us the knowledge of the way back to the Garden—the knowledge of love, forgiveness, mercy, nonviolence, reconciliation. This fruit on the Tree of Knowledge that is Jesus.
During our Holy Week liturgies this past week, on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday, we imagined words from the Song of Songs on the mouth of Mary Magdalene, as she anointed Jesus at Bethany, before he makes his journey to the Cross. The words from the Song were these:
Place me as a seal upon your heart,
For love is as strong as death,
its ardor as unyielding as the grave.
It burns like a blazing fire,
Like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love.
Rivers cannot wash it away.
We noted during these liturgies that Mary Magdalene is present at every step of Jesus’ final journey—there, at the Cross as he dies, there to anoint the body and prepare it for burial, and finally, there this morning, as the first witness to Love’s return. On this morning, she goes back to the garden, and there she finds that the words of the Song are fulfilled: yes, love is as strong as, and stronger, than death, it’s ardor as unyielding as the grave; many waters cannot quench love.
This morning, all of us are Mary Magdalene; we are all this morning in the Garden of the Song of Songs, that place of mystical love and union. “Come,” the Divine Beloved calls out, “Come into the garden, and eat the fruit of the trees!” Come and eat of love. This morning, this day of Resurrection, we are all back in the Garden together.
And so is it any surprise that Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener? Is she mistaken? Is he not the master gardener in this garden of mystical love? All along he’s been showing us the way back, and now he crosses back, even from death, to show us one last time why we are here. We’re here to garden—to tend and cultivate love and beauty, mercy, compassion, justice, and joy. It’s why we’ve always been here. And the Garden has never actually left us; we’ve left the Garden.
And so he returns, even from death, and he gives us his last, most important, teaching: “Do not hold onto me…” But that’s what we want to do! We want to hold onto him. “Do not hold onto me,” he says to her, to us. Don’t cling to this external gardener; you have to find the gardener, and the garden, within yourself. You must begin tending and tilling the ground of your own heart. He throws us back on ourselves.
Some of you will remember Caryll Houselander, a Roman Catholic writer and poet who died in the 1950s. These are some of her words:
[While] Christ was in the tomb; the whole world was sown with the seed of Christ’s life; that which happened thirty years ago in the womb of the Virgin Mother was happening now, but now it was happening yet more secretly, yet more mysteriously, in the womb of the whole world. Christ had already told those who flocked to hear Him preach that the seed must fall into the earth, or else remain by itself alone. Now the seed of His life was hidden in darkness in order that His life should quicken in countless hearts, over and over again for all time. His burial, which seemed to be the end, was the beginning. It was the beginning of Christ-life in multitudes of souls.
It was the beginning of our return to the Garden. The Garden is what this world can be if we tend and cultivate it with love, compassion, mercy, and justice. God has planted us here as gardeners within the life of God. And alleluia, alleluia, Christ the master gardener is risen from within the soil of our hearts. “Do not hold onto me,” he says. “Rather, put on these gloves, take this spade, and get to work! We have a garden to tend.”