Gospel: John 20: 1–18
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian
Sunday, 12th April 2020 at 10.09 AM
The scene we’ve just encountered begins right at the end of the night. It’s still dark, and the darkness lingers as the dawn is about to break. We are in a garden, at the place where Jesus has been crucified, as John tells us just a few verses earlier. We’ve been here before somehow, and that really matters for St John’s account of this story. At the beginning of creation, the first human was placed in the Garden of Eden; the new Adam emerges triumphant from a Garden containing a tomb. But this is more than straightforward restoration, not just turning back the clock. An early legend tells us that Adam’s skull was buried on Calvary, receiving the new fruit – Christ’s blood – from the Cross, the tree of life. Patristic and medieval minds were full of such imagery. As the shades melt away into that first Easter morning, this is the dawn of the new creation; history and hope, memory and expectation fusing in the most unimaginable technicolour as death is trampled down by death. As the 11th century Victimae Paschali puts it, “life and death together fought, each to a strange extreme was brought.”
Yet amidst all its glory, this is also a scene of touching intimacy. Mary goes to tend the body of someone she loves, and its absence from the scene is deeply distressing. After Peter and John have gone, Mary’s tears are the veil through which she has a first glimpse of what has actually happened; tears which perhaps come again as Jesus tells her not to touch him. Those of us currently in isolation may find ourselves all too present in today’s story, hearing again the message of the resurrection, but longing for the reassurance of the physical presence of family, friends, brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.
The garden we’re standing in is the site of the old monastic infirmary chapel. It’s here that the sick and elderly monks would’ve worshipped, too frail to enter the great Abbey, so instead coming here just yards from their hospital beds, isolated from the rest of their brothers and the life of the monastery. They would have come here for eucharist, possibly for confession and sacramental reassurance, some perhaps to receive their last rites. This garden has seen its fair share of life and death, rubbing up against each other, held together by the Good News contained in today’s Gospel. The promise of eternal life and new creation, right at the heart of real sickness, real fragility as bodies shut down, and the breath returns to the one who gave it.
John’s account of the Resurrection takes us right the way back to our fallenness and fragility. Christ’s resurrection is a genuine healing of a genuine wound. Just as this was surely a physical death, a real burial, it is also a physical rising. It’s not a metaphor – as if we could be saved by one of those! The very love and power at the origins of creation gives itself to a real human death, to show that it has no final power over those who dare to trust in this victory. Jesus’s own life, from his vulnerable birth, through his ministry of healing, his touching of the excluded and unloved, his judgement on the world’s greed and selfish violence, to his seemingly shameful death outside the city walls, reveals a pattern. God is with us. God is close to us. The love which made us, will never let us go. This is an offer of radical reconciliation, in which the Risen Jesus calls each of us by name as he called Mary. In the Garden of Eden, the man himself named the animals. Here, Jesus names each of us, calling us to step into the new life opened up by his resurrection, and to share it with others.
Mary supposes Jesus to be the gardener. She is, of course (on one level) absolutely right. In Christ’s risen humanity, the final flourishing of all creation is promised. Christ is the first-fruit of that renewal, in which all nature will share. One of the dangers of the health crisis currently besetting our world is that it could lead us to think of nature as our foe, instead of our friend. Our salvation is not technology, wonderful though it is; our salvation is not learning more ways in which we can control or dominate the earth. Jesus’s resurrection calls us to communion with the good earth and its maker, a partnership of solidarity and responsibility. It’s no wonder that gift is fragile. A real death. A real resurrection. Its earliest realisation often glimpsed through tears.
Christ is the first fruits of an abundantly fresh life. We share that life with one another in small acts of love, of husbandry for our souls, for our communities, and for the earth. Death and decay are not the final actors in the time of the world.
Especially at times of uncertainty and turmoil, the context of our work, our relationships, even our smallest decisions should not be the graveyard, but rather the Garden of the Resurrection. From the vantage point of life in Christ, we begin to see, often through our tears, the renewal of all creation. “Mary spring is here to stay, only death is dead.”