Talk Three: The Garden of the Tomb (Holy Wednesday)
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’
Supposing him to be the gardener …
We find ourselves now, in the garden of the tomb, where, like Mary, we have hurried on the first day of the week, not knowing what we will find. We do not know where we are going; only that this garden calls us to be there, close to the loved one we have lost.
It is early morning. Morning has broken, blackbird has spoken. The light is green gold. We come, as Mary did, acutely aware of the human propensity and knowledge of good and evil. We come, straining to see through our tears, caused by the state we’re in. We come, full of fear and trepidation at the challenges that the natural environment faces, and humanity with it.
We come, and the peace of the garden begins to delight us. We come to find a gardener, who tells us to have resilience, to relinquish what’s not needed, to restore what is needed for a fruitful future. In the garden of the tomb we anticipate the resurrection that is to come. The garden of the tomb holds the opportunities and promise of life.
The garden of the tomb is bathed in a different light. It promises delight, colour: a riotous range of greens, yellows and white. The shimmer of moisture in the air; the soft, intense light. We recall Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who walked and noticed, who wrote of the thrill of a world charged with the grandeur of God; how nature is never spent; of the dearest freshness deep down things, and how the Holy Ghost broods with warm breast and bright wings.
This experience of life, abundant life – surging all around us in colour and vibrancy like a Stanley Spencer painting – gives us a glimpse of the Resurrection life in which heaven and earth rejoice. This is the life to which we are born, and in which we continue to live and move and have our being. We find ourselves in the garden in which life began, in which Mary found the risen Christ. The natural world sings the glory of God. It shapes our desires; breaks our heart and remakes us.
It inspires poets, painters, writers. C S Lewis described it like this in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Caspian and the children are at the end of the world.
And when the third day dawned … they saw a wonder ahead. It was as if a wall stood up between them and the sky, a greenish-grey, shimmering, trembling wall …
This was the frontier between Narnia and Aslan’s country, a potent boundary between our desire and the fulfilment of desire.
Edmund and Eustace would never talk about it afterwards. Lucy could only say, “It would break your heart.” “Why?” said I, “Was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.
It would break your heart.
St Augustine, too. He knew this light too. To wrote in Chapter X of his Confessions:
There my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. That is what I love when I love my God.
It is a time, as Augustine did, to consider our desires, and how best to respond. At a time when people are campaigning because they know the natural environment to be at breaking point, we are inspired by the promise of the Resurrection to consider the dearest deep down desires we have.
When we hear God’s call in our lives; so often we don’t understand. All we have is this nagging, yearning for something else, something more to life. We can’t put words to it, but it’s there, prompting and urging us towards we know not what. Baptism has begun the work of grace in us; and like the world around, we come alive as the ordinary becomes extraordinary. We need to follow the joy.
Michael McCarthy is a contemporary nature writer who struggles with the way the natural world of his childhood has become so degraded. Nevertheless, he commends a sense of joy. Like other natural writers, he encourages humanity to recover the wonder of elation. He is not a churchgoer; not a believer – but he knows something essential about the joy of life. In his book The Moth Snowstorm he describes a blackcap singing in a tree in his garden:
Here was this God-given, blossoming snow-white tree, which was breathtaking in its beauty; and here was this God-given, breathtaking sound coming out of it. This tree, this tree of trees, was not just an astonishing apotheosis of floral beauty. It now appeared to be singing.
The rational part of me couldn’t cope. It was all too much, and it fell to bits. I had gone way past simple admiration into some unknown part of the spectrum of the senses, and there was only one possible response: I burst out laughing. And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it. (McCarthy 2016, p.154, abridged)
‘And there, in the exquisite fullness of the springtime, was the joy of it.’ This is a sense of fullness that so often describes the experience of awe. A fullness that overflows the normal boundaries of the self into something delicious, exciting, unmistakeable. Lovely, good and true in a way that can’t be explained, but takes us into an ineffable realm. A realm where poetry comes into its own, and language opens out beyond control to dialogue with others, to seek to express a sense of praise and thanksgiving to the transcendent God.
To anticipate the resurrected life is to know ourselves surrounded by the grace of God – sight, fragrance, light, embrace. It is to hear the word of the Lord calling us to abide in him as he abides in us. Rooted and grafted into Christ, the true vine, we then bear fruit, fruit that will last.
It is not always easy, to follow Christ, and bear Christ’s fruit. We need to suppose him to be the gardener. Jesus Christ, who prunes and shapes our desires; who tends us as we live through suffering and pain. We will live with anxiety and fear that feels unbearable, that keeps us awake at night. We will continue to abide in the Garden of Gethesmane. We will know the pain of loss, of despair. We need to remember that baptism is through the deep waters of death. When we abide in the vine, and allow Christ to dig deep in the soil that is our lives, we know that rejection and pain is part of a greater story that gives meaning to suffering. Behind all words and experience we may endure there is God’s purpose which is life; the eternal life in which we abide. In which we are fruitful, even in our suffering and pain. Christ the gardener calls us by name. Our hearts are broken that we may know the life that is stronger than death.
Let us listen for that voice in the garden, calling us by name. A vocation to abide more deeply in God’s love, giving of ourselves in service, and in prayer. We can hear that voice in the wastelands of the world, in our churches, out walking, or in the garden. We hear it in the wild, undomesticated corners of the world. We see it in the weeds that grow abundantly – the ferns and flowers that spring up through the cracks of pavements, in the walls. We hear it in the raucous sounds of gulls, the first swallow of summer.
There are reminders all around us – from the natural world, in the words we hear, the sounds and sights that speak of God’s grace. As we join Mary in the garden of the tomb, we know that we abide in God, who is the Love that does not let us go. The love that breaks our heart, that we might know the abundant life of God.