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.

Your Perfect Room

‘Home Sweet Home’ art by Dominic Bradnum

I’m sitting in church on Sunday night, and one of the worship songs has made reference to John 14:2 (“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”) I prefer that translation to the one that gives us a mansion each. “Rooms” implies we’re all living in a home with God as part of his family.

In the past I’ve pictured this almost like a hotel, I guess, every room the same. But maybe not. Maybe each of those rooms is decked out in our favourite colours, rooms with fantastic acoustics being built for the musicians, the rooms with the best light being allocated to the artists. And these rooms are safe. Too many people grew up in homes that weren’t. But here’s a room in which no-one can hurt you, where you don’t have to hide, where those that once hurt you can never get to you. Where you can finally let go of the memories that kept you alert, the strategies you once needed to keep you safe.

These are rooms where there is light and heating without fail, where there is clean water, where there is food on the table, where there are no bombs or sirens, no rage, no fear.

This is a house where truth is spoken, not the ‘truth’ that is wielded as a weapon but the Truth that you’re loved, you’re precious, you’re encouraged and that you’re unique in this universe, your combination of quirks and experiences and talent and beauty.

Maybe there are even photos on the wall; baby photos, maybe, or photos of when Someone took particular pride in you, even if those weren’t the moments you’d expect. Maybe there’s a mural on the opposite wall, a picture that speaks to who you are and what you mean to the Artist.

This is your home, the home you wanted, the home you needed. The home in which your accepted, your deepest self, where you’re known by the name by which you should always have been known.

You’re not given access to this room by a church, by your parents, by your boss, by any of the people who once held power over you. The key to this room isn’t given by a politician, by the media, by an algorithm, by yourself. It’s a gift. It’s an inheritance. The one who built the place has scarred hands, but he still helps you to move in.

Because it’s your home.

It’s your home.

It’s your home.

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.

O King of the Nations

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 22nd December is called O Rex Gentium, or O King of the Nations; you can hear it sung below.

“Give us a king!” the people said.

“But aren’t I enough for you?” God replied.

“Nope. We want to be like everyone else. Give us a king!”

That was a long time ago, but we still want a king. We might not call them a king nowadays – maybe ‘Leader’ or ‘President’ or ‘Someone Remotely Competent” – someone who can fix this whole mess. It’s understandable, I guess, but there’s an edge to this, because often WE want a king who will sort out THEM. That’s been particularly highlighted throughout 2020, a year marked by division, x vs y. Factions and denominations and states and companies establish their little fiefdoms and build themselves up by tearing down others.

Into a world like this, Jesus comes as a baby, a symbol of a new start. He grows up to be not a warrior, but a carpenter, a builder, someone who fixes and repairs things. He comes as a healer, he comes as a storyteller. In a metaphorical kind of way he comes as a blacksmith, to beat swords into ploughshares, AK-47’s into ventilators. He doesn’t come as the sort of king we’re all used to, but a crown of thorns is still a crown.

Swords into Ploughshares by Kelly Latimore

His Kingdom exists throughout the world, and not just in the eschatological sense. Most of the time it’s hidden by noise and actions that don’t reflect Christ, it’s hidden by theocracies that claim that God hates all the people they do. It’s hidden because winning has become more important than healing, it’s hidden because being right has become more important than being kind.

But this year, things are strange. This year, things aren’t as we expected. This year, the new is normal. And that’s going to be difficult for so many of us; it’s going to be sad, it’s going to be lonely, it’s going to be heartbreaking, it’s going to be frightened. And that’s when we who claim to follow the upside-down King need to put down our swords, put down our proof-texts and pick up our saucepans, our debit cards, our contact lists. Because Christ’s Kingdom is just. Christ’s Kingdom is peaceful. Christ’s Kingdom is kind.