Yesterday morning, my wife and I came downtown at about 8:30 am. I was coming to participate in our brief and moving liturgy for Holy Saturday. Corrie was going to participate in one of Madison’s annual rituals: the first Dane County Farmer’s Market of the season. As we were driving, I remarked to Corrie as I was looking at the bare trees and the few signs of new life in people’s yards and gardens, that it was hard to believe it was April 19. After a long, hard winter, it’s still not quite clear that spring has arrived. Perhaps by tomorrow the bulbs will be begin to bloom. But who knows? It might snow, too.
We’ve been walking around the yard, gauging damage from the winter, looking for signs of new life in the trees, shrubs, and plants and hoping that we’ve not lost too many items from the cold winter and heavy snow. It’s a ritual every gardener knows. Our impatience at the end of the winter and the slow spring only deepens our worries that the winter killed some of our most beloved plants.
We look for signs of new life in the garden each spring. For some, a garden is little more than a hobby, or a great deal of hard work; for some it’s a place we find meaning and purpose. And for those on that quest, we are very much like the biblical story. For it is a story that begins in a garden; reaches its climax in a garden, and even ends in a garden.
I need hardly remind you that of the garden at the beginning of the biblical story—the garden of Eden. Planted by God, in Genesis 2 we’re told that God created the man from the dirt to till it and keep it; God created the woman to be the man’s helpmeet. They grasped for wisdom, desired to be like God, and were cast out. Whatever else the garden may have meant to people who inhabited the imaginative world of the bible, the Garden of Eden was a place of loss, a loss of innocence, perfection, intimate relationship with God.
In today’s gospel, we find ourselves in another garden. Like the first garden, it has been the site of disappointment. It is the place where Jesus has been buried. Buried with him were all the hopes and dreams, the faith of those who loved him. In John’s gospel, the disciples are not quite so thick skulled and unknowing as they are depicted in Mark and Matthew. But even so, John describes disciples who understand and believe at different levels. And here, at the empty tomb, he writes that the Beloved Disciple “saw and believed”—a potent formula throughout the gospel that suggests deeper understanding than the norm.
Mary Magdalene comes here to sit at the tomb, to tend the corpse of her dear friend. She comes to the tomb of her beloved friend to grieve. Her grief is the grief shared by humans everywhere at the loss of a loved one. It’s a grief we’ve all experienced. No doubt, some of you carry such grief in your hearts this morning.
But her grief is especially familiar to those who have lost friends and family members in an untimely fashion, and especially those who grieve the deaths of those they love because of the violence, oppression, and hate of other humans. No doubt, in her grief is also fear, and anger, impotence and rage.
Imagine her surprise, her horror when she discovers that the tomb is empty, a final indignity to her friend. He couldn’t even be allowed to rest in peace. In fear and anger she runs to her friends, to tell them what has happened, to share the outrage. Peter and the other, the beloved disciple run to see, look at the empty tomb, see the discarded grave clothes and leave
Mary stays behind, lingering in the garden, lingering with her fears and doubts, lingering with her dashed hopes. The angel tells her what has happened—but she cannot take it all in. She can’t understand the meaning of his words. And so she turns. She sees the gardener, deciding to ask him where Jesus’ body was taken.
And in that moment, everything changes. He calls her by name; the mist of incomprehension is cleared from her eyes, and she knows him, “Rabbouni, Teacher,” she cries out. And the world that was destroyed in that first garden is created anew in this garden. Suddenly Mary, and all of us, experience the garden, the world, our lives made new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We grasp for images to help us understand this amazing event. It’s new life, we say, like the new life that springs up each year, or we hope springs up each year in our gardens. After a long and hard winter, as beautiful and as unexpected as the beauty of daffodils or tulips may be, we know to expect such bursts of color from the bulbs we planted last year and we know there are scientific reasons when they don’t burst forth from the ground.
Not so the resurrection. It was and is unexpected. We all know the reality, most of us have experienced it all too often—the death of a loved one, the rituals of a funeral, the gaping hole of a grave, we’ve known the gaping wounds in our own hearts. We have said our last good-byes to friends, parents, children. We know the pain, the loss, and the reality that we will never see them again.
We don’t know resurrection. We can’t grasp it, we can’t comprehend it. It lies outside of our experience, outside of our world. And when we read the accounts, or hear them read, our skeptical minds want to know what really happened, whether it’s all just a lovely story told by a bunch of know-nothing Palestinian peasants two thousand years ago, a story that is appealing because of its sentiment, but not true, not connected to any reality in our world. And so we resort to other silly stories, and imagery, that might help us make sense of it, help us cling to some symbolic meaning, something like, well resurrection means hope, and new life, and joy.
Of course it means all of those things, but it must mean much more. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain.” I’m not expecting you to understand or make sense of the resurrection. I am asking you to believe it, to experience it. I’m hoping you’ll experience it like Mary Magdalene did, in that moment that Jesus called her name. I’m hoping you’ll experience that flash of recognition, suddenly knowing Jesus Christ, knowing yourself, and knowing the possibility of resurrection in your own life.
For the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb and a two thousand year old story. It is about relationship, with God in Jesus Christ. It’s experiencing a God who overcomes death, a God who created us and the world, a God who in Jesus Christ is making a new creation in ourselves and in the world. It is a story about a God who doesn’t give up, a God who doesn’t abandon us to our own devices and desires. As Rowan Williams has said, “the resurrection is at least in part about the sheer toughness and persistence of God’s love.”
When Jesus said, “Mary” he broke through all of the barriers in her life that prevented her from knowing him fully. When Jesus said, “Mary” he removed the mists of incomprehension from her eyes and from her heart. When Jesus said “Mary” he also says all of our names, inviting us into relationship with him, inviting us to know and experience him fully, inviting us to experience the wonder and persistence of God’s love.
We mustn’t let it end there, however, not with our own experience of the wonder and persistence of God’s love. Like Mary, our joy should be so great, our hearts so overflowing that we want to share the good news of that love, inviting others into relationship with Jesus Christ, letting the whole world know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new. Let us go forth and shout with joy: “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”