Christ the Gardener

Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener

Easter always makes me think of gardens.

This year it’s the garden at church. A while back it was an overgrown wasteland, a forest of brambles, needles and empty bottles in the heart of a city. It wasn’t dead, exactly, but it was a wilderness, a no-man’s-land. It wasn’t a nice patch of urban wildflowers; thorns choked back any semblance of healthy life and, just to emphasize the irony of all this, it used to be a burial ground. As metaphors go, this is pretty on the nose; we exist in a world tangled up in rage and corruption and oppression. Feels like we’re trapped there most of the time.

But the garden at church isn’t a wilderness anymore. People have put in months of work to make it a garden again, planting and digging and weeding. It’s turning into a place that people can visit again. It’s been reborn. It’s been resurrected.

“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” a great philosopher once said, “But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.”

On that first Easter morning, Mary meets the risen Jesus but she first mistakes him for a gardener, and while that was mistaken identity in the midst of grief it was also prophetic, because she recognised the creator, the healer, the Gardener who replants Eden, the Carpenter who builds the Kingdom of God, the one who, in his resurrection, resurrects everything else.

That’s something I struggle to hold on to. The garden feels more like a wasteland. But at the core of everything is a moment that allows all things to be reborn. Maybe not immediately; maybe the garden is just soil full of seeds at the moment, maybe new life slumbers beneath the surface for the winter. But the garden isn’t a wilderness any more. Hope can be reborn, faith, peace, love. If Good Friday was a spiritual tear in the world, Easter Sunday makes that tear into a doorway.

A doorway we can walk through, into a garden.

A Tear in Everything (Good Friday)

There’s a tear in everything.

Jesus dies, God dies, and the earth shakes and rips itself apart.

And the veil between the living and the dead is slashed open and holy ones who were once dead are now raised to life and praising in the streets.

And the curtain in the Temple is ripped in two, the barrier to the holiest place on Earth now wide open.

And time and space are confused as darkness falls too early.

The Creator and Sustainer of the universe dies, and in that moment things unravel. The grubby politics and the brutal-but-calculated execution have inadvertently stabbed a hole in the cosmos, and through this wound a soldier glimpses the truth.

I used to think the curtain in the Temple was a thick, dark, black thing. But in reality it was red and blue, purple and white, representing fire and air, water and air. So when it tears, it speaks to this world – a world of grass and glass, trees and concrete – being exposed to the world of the divine and holy, of God and angels. That was always something to be feared.

But if there’s a wound in the world, then it’s one through which healing can come. The last time the heavens opened, God announced that Jesus was his Son. This time, the truth is uttered by a man steeped in blood, but it’s the truth nevertheless. Of all the wounds this Centurion has seen, this is the one that saves the world. After all, there was never meant to be a barrier between us and God. “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” sang Leonard Cohen. On Good Friday, that’s more true than ever.

There’s a wound in the world, but beyond the bruises and the nails, it’s a wound that heals.

And in the silence of a tomb, the healing begins.

Scars and Remembrance

‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch

Remembrance Sunday 2021. Surrounded by flags and uniforms, medals pinned on civilian clothes, the local vicar’s words turn towards trauma: physical trauma, yes, the wounds carried in the bodies of service men and woman, but also the invisible trauma, the nightmares and flashbacks, the slow-burning scars that can take years to bleed, that can lead to imprisonment or homelessness. This is the invisible trauma, the trauma we don’t know what to do with. It’s often a silent wound, a not-knowing-where-to-turn, and while as a society we’re getting better at acknowledging it, we’re still not yet there.

Individuals evolve their own coping mechanisms. Some talk about it, formally or informally. Some lock it away in the quiet. Some turn it into art.   Others try to fight it. Others give up. We speak of war, we speak of service, of duty and honour, but the scars? The scars get buried in the statistics, uncovered mainly by over-stretched charities. Trauma runs through both our remembrance and our forgetfulness while veterans sleep in doorways and a not inconsiderable chunk of our GDP blows up in Yemen.

The Bible is a book that sees people living through vast amounts of trauma: slavery, exile, persecution, natural disasters. It records atrocities and violence, some of which seem to be rubber-stamped by God. No-one ever preaches on Lamentations but there it is, the record of a city destroyed, its warriors defeated, its survivors picking through the rubble. It’s a neglected part of the Bible but it’s there. Maybe that’s something to remember this Remembrance Day, that and the unspoken horrors that may be carried by the people sitting next to us in the pews, the nightmare-memories that maybe keep you up all night.

I wish I knew what to do with all this. The image that keeps recurring is the risen Jesus standing before Thomas, hands outstretched and covered with scars, because despite the miracle of resurrection the memory of crucifixion is still written on Christ’s body. There’s probably a profound theological point to be made around that, but maybe the image of scarred hands is enough for now as the sun goes down on another Remembrance Sunday. Embrace the victory, rebuild from defeat, but never forget the scars. Healing has to start by seeing the wounds in the first place.

Childermas Again

The Killing of the Innocents by Herod, Leon Coginet

The original version of this post was written five years ago. It’s tragic to note that, since then, not much has changed; in some ways the situation has become worse. On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, this is something we need to confront; on the brink of a new year, this is something we need to take forward.

It’s the Christmas hangover of commemorations, isn’t it? The joy and beauty of the Nativity give way to the world’s brutal realities as Herod’s death squads march into town.

It’s not a part of the story we like to think about too much, a liminal atrocity on the fringes of the narrative. And yet so many of those kneeling beside the manger are either affected or complicit – Herod issues the order, sure, but it’s inadvertently thanks to the blunders of the Magi. Jesus, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt, but what of the shepherds left out in the fields? Did any of them have infant sons waiting for them at home?

We pretend, of course, that this sort of thing is rare. That we live in a civilised society where children are valued and loved. And yet there are 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK (that’s gone up since I wrote my original post); UNICEF reports that one in six children globally live in extreme poverty. The UN tells us that around 33 million of the world’s refugees are under 18, but it takes a photograph of one of their bodies washed up on a beach to make us give a damn about that statistic for five minutes. Churches cover up child abuse.

Herod casts a long shadow.

Over recent years, I’ve slowly begun to appreciate the wisdom of the church calendar. Not just the big celebrations, but the hidden feast days, the obscure remembrances, the idea that someone somewhere decided it would be good to honour Herod’s victims, and in doing so remember all the other infant victims of our politics and greed, our rage and corruption. Childermas isn’t just a call to memory, it’s a call to repentance.

And yet there’s also space for hope – there has to be, because this is too important to fall victim to nihilistic cynicism. There are people working to end child poverty, people operating shelters so families can escape domestic violence, people opening their homes to refugees. They need our support and our prayers, because they’re saving children from war and want, violence and apathy; because they’re a sanctuary along the flight to Egypt; because they’re building the Kingdom of God in the shadow of Herod’s legacy and that’s a sacred calling, at Christmas and beyond.

O Emmanuel

The O Antiphons are a series of chants traditionally used across the final seven days of Advent. Each one is based on a particular characteristic of Jesus; the chant for 23rd December is called O Emmanuel, or O God is With Us; you can hear it sung below. Links to the full series can be found here.

We’re nearly there, we’re nearly at Christmas. The longest night is behind us, Mary and Joseph are almost at the stable, a new year is upon us. And yet it’s sometimes hard to draw comfort from this; for some, this Christmas season is going to be rough, either because COVID keeps them from their loved ones, or because there will be empty spaces around the table, or because this will be one more lonely day in an ocean of lonely days. Others will be working – nurses, doctors, all those invisible people who keep our countries moving, who keep the lights on, who make sure there’s food on the shelves for Boxing Day. This year has reminded us not to take these jobs for granted, that for many the 25th will be a work day. Others – volunteers, faith communities, charities – will be gearing up to bring something of Christmas into dire situations, food parcels, presents for kids, hygiene products. There are a lot of people relying on these services; there’s a lot of weight in those responsibilities.

This may sound a bit downbeat. Christmas is a time of celebration, of joy, of hope, and Christmas will come. But no matter how close we are to the finishing line, we’re still in Advent, that pause in which we remember exactly what we’re celebrating. Here, at the end of the O Antiphons, we hear the call that God is with us, that God doesn’t magically appear but is born in a stable, genes and divinity coalescing, God birthed into humanity. God isn’t with us as a spectator, feet untouched by dust, hair untouched by raindrops; God stands alongside us, familiar with grief and loss and heartbreak; understanding that sometimes the future contains horrors that have to be faced; knowing the pain of attending funerals and the joy of attending weddings.

And so God is with us; in the High Dependency Unit, in the refugee camp, in the queue at the foodbank, in the care home, in the cell block, at the protest, on the Zoom call. In the grief, in the fear, in the mental health crisis. Two millennia ago, Earth and Heaven came together in Bethlehem and that resonates onward to today. God is still with us.