Gardening in the Dark: Going from Death to Resurrection with Jesus

Do you garden?

My mom loves to garden. To put it in technical terms used by the gardening establishment, she’s somewhere between avid and addicted. And we all benefit. I frequently return home from my parent’s house in rural South Georgia with baskets and old grocery bags full of squash, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers, tomatoes that will absolutely ruin you from any tomatoes you buy from the store, and cucumbers that are in size comparable to my thighs. This past weekend, I took my toddler daughter down to my parents for a brief mini-vacation, and upon our arrival she was immediately whisked away by my mom to the garden, where, hand-in-hand, they took their own private strawberry picking tour. My daughter carried around a basket for this purpose, although she ended up eating most of the ones she picked, and the others she very assertively insisted on setting out for the “bunnies” to come by and eat. It’s a wonder my daughter didn’t make herself sick on strawberries over the course of the weekend.

One of the running jokes at my parent’s house – one which didn’t necessarily start out as a joke –  is that if you ask, “hey, where’s mom?” The answer is always, “I dunno, did you check the garden?” The humor of this running joke isn’t just the frequency at which this response turns out to be right, but the fact that it could be any time of day. One time, arriving late at night from out of town, I asked, “hey, where’s mom?” “did you check the garden?” Sure enough, there’s mom. In the garden. At 9:30. At night. Planting tomatoes.

And yet, as I was reminded this past weekend, this image of gardening in the dark is an important metaphor for my understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I’ve been increasingly drawn with awe and fascination to the narrative of John 20, in which Mary Magdalene, in the darkness of the morning hours, sits at the tomb of Jesus, weeping in the midst of her grief, sorrow, and confusion following his death.

11 As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

With tears streaming down her face, Mary out of desperation asks Jesus, who she believes to be the gardener, if perhaps he knows where the body of Jesus lay. As in his journey with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears but is not initially recognized.  We are drawn into the dramatic tension as we anticipate the moment when those who are looking at Jesus, and even talking with Jesus, will recognize him for who he is. It is an apocalyptic moment, from concealing to revealing, from veiling to disclosure, from seeing in a mirror dimly to seeing face to face. And so as we read the narrative of John 20, we anticipate that powerful moment of revelation. 

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

It’s a poignant and climactic moment. But if we arrive at this moment too quickly, we risk overlooking one of the crucial themes. Because the fact is, Mary is correct. It is the gardener, Jesus.  John, who begins his gospel with the words of Genesis, “in the beginning” and proceeds with the themes of God’s word coming forth as light in the midst of darkness, now takes us into the restored Eden, the garden of new creation. Just as God’s spirit hovered over the dark waters of creation and spoke “light!”, Jesus, who tames the seas and who is the light in the darkness, inaugurates God’s new creation in the midst of darkness, in the midst of a new garden. The story of Adam in the garden of Eden is recapitulated and collapsed onto the resurrected body of Jesus. The garden of John 20 is dark, and there is weeping. But something has changed. It is as if one has entered an alternate reality, for in this garden we find not the first Adam, but the second Adam, Jesus Christ; we find not sin and death, but righteousness and life; we find not the prospect of exile and hopelessness, but a sure reconciliation and the hope that never fails.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…”

What really sticks with me from this scene in John 20 is that is in the dark. While the resurrection of Jesus is a decisive disruption of light into the world of darkness, his revealing of himself to Mary is nevertheless in this context of darkness, confusion, suffering, and tears. This is significant. It speaks to the tension of Holy Week, its discontinuity and its continuity, the tension between the disruptive nature of Jesus’ resurrection on the one hand, and on the other the fact that it is revealed to us in the context of ordinariness, the mundane, and even pain and suffering. It is the grace of God in Christ that we do not have to first be led out of the darkness to encounter the risen Jesus. If the gospel accounts are any instructive indication, it is perhaps more likely that we will encounter the risen Christ in the darker moments and seasons of life. I’m reminded of Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “When dark hours come, and when the darkest hour comes upon us, then let us hear the voice of Jesus Christ, which cries in our ears, ‘victory is won.’”[1]

If the truth of the resurrection only pierces the hearts of those who have no doubt, no tears, who know not darkness, who already have their righteousness and hope by some other means, who already have everything figured out, then resurrection is not for us. And if this is the case, our faith is in vain and we are to be pitied, as Paul says.  Rather, the promise of Christ’s resurrection is the promise of a sure hope in the midst of pain, it is the promise light shining in the darkness, the promise of righteousness and vindication where sin and guilt once held us captive, the promise of life where there once was death. It is the promise that even in the midst of our tear-filled doubt and uncertainty, the gardener of our souls calls us by name.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his sermon, “Christus Victor,” November 1939


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