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.

Blue Christmas (repost)

Five blue candles of varying heights, lit against the night.

Tonight will be the longest night, the night we’re furthest from the sun (here in the northern hemisphere at least). It’s cold, the darkness draws in, and astronomy becomes metaphor. We cycle through the season, springtime and harvest, summer and winter, but we can be wary about that awareness – what if the spring doesn’t arrive, what if the nights don’t get shorter, what if, what if, what if… It sometimes can feel like the night will go on forever, with the dawn nothing but a cruel mirage. Maybe this sounds like hyperbole. Maybe it sounds like truth.

It’s here that I say that things do get better, that you’re stronger than you think you are, even when you don’t believe that. The nights get shorter, a bit more light every day. But there are times in the year that give us reasons to pause and acknowledge that sometimes things are hard, that there are those who would have been here who aren’t, that there are broken things and broken hearts, that at this time of year the music of Slade and Mariah can get drowned out by the noise of war drums, of scapegoating, of panic, or by the silence of absence, loneliness, despair. We can’t move on without acknowledging grief and sadness and loss.

“Every worship group should have a break-up song.” I can’t remember who said this – they had an Irish accent if that helps – but they were right. We like to talk of hope, of faith, joy; we’re less interested in talking about doubt, of sadness and trauma, of depression and despair and disappointment, as if these were two binary choices rather than different facets of the messiness of life.

In some traditions, today is a day to acknowledge and make room at the inn for sadness, for loss, of worry. The Nativity contains all these things alongside the hope and hallelujahs. Blue Christmas creates a space to recognise hurt and all we’ve lost. And maybe it’s appropriate that it coincides with the Feast of St. Thomas, the doubting disciple, the one who had to wait for a glimpse of hope, the one who embodies both cynicism and faith. Let’s not criticise Thomas too much – he was given hope in the midst of an impossible situation. The candle still flickers, the dawn still peeks above the horizon, a scarred hand still reaches out towards Thomas, towards us.

Because if we celebrate Blue Christmas tonight, it’s in the context of the days getting longer, increments of hope. Things can change, not because that’s an inevitability, but because we can look after each other, weep with those who weep, dance with those who sing. Sometimes, on the darkest night, God can seem far away, but that’s just an invitation to see him reflected in those around us, churches and communities as stars in the depths of the dark, candles raging against the night, a reminder that we’re still in advent, that Christmas is around the corner, that someone, somewhere, needs and wants you to be here tomorrow, next week, next Christmas.

Strictly Come Dancing

Strictly Come Dancing Logo: Gold glitterball with the series name across it, radiating blue rays and glitter.

Well, this is unexpected. Never thought I’d be blogging here about Strictly Come Dancing. Random references to Doctor Who and superhero comics, sure, but not a celebrity dancing competition. I mean, I watch it, but never really felt the need to write about it.

But last night, EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis took home the Glitterball trophy. For those who haven’t been following this series, Rose is profoundly Deaf and a BSL user, and so that was reflected throughout the series, perhaps most notably when one routine had a period of silent dancing. And none of this journey was about sympathy or pity or “Aww, look at the Deaf girl”; Rose was a damn good dancer who won an exceptionally close competition. This was really about representation for a community that isn’t often showcased on mainstream TV. And this is a big deal, because while this was going on, Channel 4’s subtitles went down for weeks and the government was drawing fire for not having BSL interpreters at their televised Covid briefings.

So why am I talking about this on a Bible blog? Simply because I believe that the Church needs to learn some lessons from this about representation. Too often we’re too slow or too lazy to make adaptations, and while we sometimes make worship accessible, worship leading remains out of reach.; how many stages or pulpits are accessible to a wheelchair user? And yet when that is the case, we’re not learning from the faith stories of those who are Deaf, those who are autistic, wheelchair users or those with invisible disabilities. And yes, that means embracing theologies around disabilities, but also just freeing up everyone to use the gifts God has given them, of realising that Pentecost extends to languages like BSL, SSE, Makaton and any other method of communicating.

So I celebrate Rose winning Strictly. I celebrate my Church and their commitment to bringing in BSL interpreters. I celebrate these things, but I also pray that they’re not the end of the journey but the start.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today commemorates the lives of transgender people lost to violence. Around the world, vigils will be held, acts of remembrance for a community that faces anger and hostility on a daily basis. Transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled over the last few years. Many transgender people face domestic violence, anger and insults walking down the street. Some are murdered, some take their own lives. Some are buried under the wrong name.

This is a season of memory, but increasingly it needs to become a time of passing down stories, of stopping to listen to the experiences that have been silenced or ignored, of letting these stories change those of us who need to change, to empower those whose power and hope has been taken from them. Too many people have been taken from us because their stories were drowned out by rage and hostility, and this has to end.

There are verses throughout the Bible which talk about God calling us by name, about God engraving our names on a stone and giving it to us as a gift of love. And I think it’s important to say, on this day of remembrance, that God doesn’t dead name anyone, that proclaiming God knows our innermost being is a vital statement in a world where so many are dismissed or gaslit, that creation is a spectrum rather than a collection of binary oppositions. And we remember, through the weeping and the cries for justice, those an angry society failed to protect.