The language of Spring is all over the Resurrection. It’s how ancient believers found a way to talk about eternal life, using the earthy talk of gardens and springtime: budding branches abiding in the eternal green-growing vine. Springtime is the poetry of Easter: flowers and birds, seeds and eggs. It’s why we have a memorial garden. Why we’re surrounded by lilies today: the church become a garden. It’s why the Easter Bunny hides eggs and why we go searching for them like little Mary Magdalenes on the hunt for life.
More than any other evangelist, John relies on the language of Creation. Only John begins his gospel by saying in the beginning, as if we’re starting all over. And only John tells us Jesus was buried in a garden. He’s the one says Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb in search of Jesus and thinks he’s a gardener.
And maybe he is. Maybe the Risen Lord is also a gardener.
Our translation says Mary supposes him to be the gardener. Other translations say she mistakes him for the gardener, like saying she’s got it all wrong. Like saying she’s near-sighted, too focused on this world. But maybe she gets something right in her mistake: maybe there really is something of the gardener at work in his life, death, and resurrection. Early Christians thought so when they named his risen life a New Creation and called Jesus the New Adam.
At the beginning of Creation, God looked on all he’d made and called it good. And when there was no one to till the earth, he made people like us. Our first vocation was to tend the earth and all that lives in it. But somewhere at the start, we decided we’d messed it up and would rather not think about it all that much. It’s like we buried the hope of what we wanted to be when we grew up: what we were made to be, and decided ever after we were pretty much good for nothing.
A recent book by bestselling author and Savannah native Bruce Feiler explores the story of Adam and Eve. It’s called The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us. His premise is that God made us for each other. For us, not me. And made us for love. Throughout his book, Feiler explores how hard and how good it is to love other people.
In marriage, in friendship, in work and in play — in any relationship we have — love is planted there like seed ready to flower. The question is can we, will we, tend it?
Easter is an eternal gift, and it arrives with an earthly vocation, with a here-and-now job to do. So, no wonder Mary reaches for the Risen Lord. She needs him: We need him. And no wonder Jesus looks like a gardener. Even on his way into heaven, he’s still working the gift of creation.
When artists paint this moment, they show Mary Magdalene reaching for Jesus, and show him stepping away from her. They also show Jesus holding on to a gardening tool: most often a shovel, but now and than a rake or a hoe. Something to till the earth and break up the hard ground we live by.
Isn’t Easter always working the ground where we live and tilling our hearts with hope? Now and then busting up old ideas? Preparing us for deeper things like forgiveness and reconciliation? Reworking old loves, creating new ones?
Tradition claims the Risen Lord went first to the Dead, into the depths of the earth, to share the news of his Resurrection. The Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates Easter with an icon called the Anastasis (meaning Resurrection). In it, Jesus descends to the Dead to visit Adam and Eve. They’ve been separated near forever, underground in separate tombs, and Jesus takes them by the hand and raises them to new life, restoring them to the love they were always made for.
In the icon he stands between them, holding a hand of each. You might suppose he’s simply lifting them from their graves. And there is that. Certainly they’d need help overcoming all those years in cramped quarters. But I like to think Jesus is primarily there to put their hands together, to return them to the hard work of love. They’d need help there, too. They’ve born a terrible silence for untold millennia. Who knows what they’d like to say to each other. Surely they’d need a little hand to get going again.
Rowan Williams, writing about this icon, says the reunion of Adam and Eve presents us “with an introduction to our buried selves, to our alienated neighbors, to our physical world.” Easter promises eternal life, the radical idea we’ll live forever. That’s only good news when we’re willing to break up the hard ground we stand on and welcome what we’ve buried or avoided.
According to Williams, by way of the Resurrection we can befriend what we avoid and overlook “as Jesus takes our hands and holds them in his.” Imagine it, then: Jesus holding your hand. Imagine him calling you to dig up what you long ago buried or gave up on. Imagine him asking you to try again. Or imagine him placing your hand in the hand of someone you love, someone you can’t help but love, or someone you used to love. Easter wants to be part of all that.
Through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, God’s eternal love means to flower in us this day and forever. Now let the heavens be joyful and earth her song begin. Alleluia, alleluia.