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.
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.
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.
It’s strange to say that without hearing the response, centuries of liturgy all left hanging. This isn’t how any of us expected to be celebrating Easter. We should be gathering and singing, but the virus is still circling and we need to be protecting the most vulnerable among us.
But here’s one of the great plot twists of the mad year of 2020: this may be the most authentic Easter many of us have experienced for a long time. After all, that first resurrection day wasn’t celebrated with parades and chocolate, it slowly emerged into a quiet garden, into locked rooms full of frightened and confused followers. Two thousand years later, and once again this feels like the sort of Easter on which Jesus sneaks up on us while we’re trying to figure out where to go from here.
The first person to meet the risen Jesus was looking for him through a veil of tears, and at first she doesn’t recognise him. There’s too much grief, too many broken expectations. Mary is broken by the moment, trapped in heartbreak and the what-happens-next, but she hears the footsteps, hears a half-familiar voice, and then hope raises from the dead, echoing outwards and forwards and backwards from one garden to another.
(I have a strange image in my head, Mary meeting Eve in some corner of Heaven, saying “I was in a garden too, it’s gonna be alright”).
Then there are the disciples, locked away in a room somewhere, to scared to go out onto the streets, trying to process what’s going on while getting under each others’ feet, too much mourning and testosterone in a confined space. But suddenly Jesus is in the middle of them and their lives are rewired along with the universe.
Thomas is late to all of this, so he doesn’t show up till later. He hears what the others say, sees the hope exploding on their faces and he thinks they’re crazy. The situation is, after all, hopeless; sooner or later reality will catch up with them. And I guess it does, for Thomas anyway, because he too will encounter Jesus, his doubts becoming part of a bigger story.
I’ll be honest, here in the quiet of Easter Sunday morning – I’m not always the most hopeful person; I worry, I fear the worst, I avoid thinking too far into the future because I don’t like not being able to see beyond the horizon, and the lockdown isn’t exactly helping that.
But it’s Easter, and Christ is risen, a guerrilla gardener sowing hope in places that need it most, walking quietly into situations and whispering our names to show us he’s still here. And that’s true even when we can’t meet together, when our celebrations pass through screens, when the world is fraying at the edges. If Easter isn’t good news while we’re all still on lockdown then it’s not the Good News. The Garden is springing back to life.
Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed.
“When the last star burns out, God’s love will be there for whatever comes after.” Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine
Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and an act of nominative irony.
But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings. He sings to Calvary, he sings to all the persecuted, assassinated, disappeared down the ages. You can hear different rhymes in the song, different remixes, you can bring to it samples of an advocate in a courtroom, an unlikely champion, a doctor in the hospital. You can do all that but first you’ve got to hear a man in pain.
So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.
Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness, but turns and heads towards conviction:
For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a glimpse of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.
But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.
So it’s Palm Sunday. Jesus heads towards Jerusalem riding on a donkey, his followers cheering him on, waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, “Lord save us!” He’s heading into Holy Week, the final showdown between… Well, between almost everything you can think of: between Jesus and the authorities, between God’s kingdom and the empires of the world, between sin and grace, between life and death. This is the beginning of the end. And we’re presented with a choice – who are we going to follow? Who are you going to trust to save you?
A few years ago, the American pastor Brian Zahnd used a phrase in a Palm Sunday sermon that’s stuck with me ever since. He described his travels throughout the world and visiting statues and art galleries, and he made this observation: “There’s always some dude on a horse.” And there is – everywhere you go, sooner or later you’ll find an image of a man on a horse, representing military power and might. These are the heroes of our past, the people we look up to. They ride impressive horses, because that fits their status. These are the people who defended us, these are the people who crushed our enemies. But you’ll notice that none of them were riding donkeys.
Back in the day, in the days leading up to Passover, Jesus wouldn’t have been the only one involved in a parade. Heading towards the other side of the city was something far more impressive. The Roman Empire, in the form of Pontius Pilate and his troops were also arriving to put their foot down, a show of strength at a time when the city was full of Passover pilgrims and memories of how God had once freed his people from a mighty nation. “Just remember who’s in charge around here,” says Pilate’s procession, as he rides into the city on a warhorse, accompanied by chariots and lots of men armed with very sharp swords.
Two parades, each representing a very different kingdom. On the one hand we have the superpower, a great empire, the most powerful army in the world. On the other hand, we have a grown man on an undersized donkey surrounded by a bunch of yokels. Looked at through the world’s eyes, there’s no question as to which is the most powerful, and this is where we have to make a choice about who we’re going to follow. Because Jesus’s parade looks very different to the sort of power the world asks us to trust in.
But Jesus is announcing the arrival of his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God. This whole parade is a fulfilment of a prophecy made by Zechariah – “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey”. The donkey is important – 2 Samuel points out that King David’s household were known for riding on donkeys and mules. This parade links Jesus with Israel’s greatest king, but Zechariah takes it a step further – he’s talking about a king on a donkey who is also the foretold Messiah. This is more than a king having a parade to show off his might, it’s about God’s kingdom being inaugurated on Earth, an age of peace being brought into being. The bit of the prophecy quoted by Matthew is Zechariah 9:9, but it doesn’t end there; it goes on to say:
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth
This is a king who brings peace to the world and reigns not just over a few territories but over the whole of creation. There’s no messing about here – Jesus entering Jerusalem like this announces that this king is now here. This is dynamite – it’s no wonder people start cheering and throwing cloaks on the ground to be trodden on by a young and nervous donkey. The age of peace, the age of the Messiah, the age of God’s kingdom has arrived. And while it wouldn’t arrive in the way everyone was expecting, of course, but arrive it did).
And so Palm Sunday is an invitation to dance into an upside down Kingdom. You’ve only got to look at it to see that: there’s a donkey rather than a stallion, peasants rather than soldiers, a carpenter rather than a generals. And as with so many things, we’ve got to figure out what that means for us here and now. Maybe we’re able to catch a glimpse of that upside-down world in the current situation – suddenly we’re honouring people we’ve been guilty of taking for granted – care workers and nurses and ambulance drivers. We’re suddenly noticing people who we’ve shamefully treated as invisible or unskilled – all those cleaners and delivery drivers who keep the world running. We’re learning innovation in how to do church from people who have previously been pushed to the margins, all those who are socially isolated and have been using technology to do church for years. The Kingdom of God raises up the weak, the neglected, the oppressed, and so often that’s where the Spirit is on the move.
So we have a chance to practice living in the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, to follow his odd parade through the time of Coronavirus. We can practice generosity rather than hording. We can practice gratitude rather than entitlement. We can practice hope rather than despair. And when we hear the hoofbeats approaching, we can choose to ignore the wardrums and money and prejudices that pretend to save us, and instead pick up our palm branches and follow the King on the Donkey.