Mary and the Gardener: Easter Meditation by Laura, 3.31.13

Texts: John 20:1-18, Isaiah 65:17-25

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” Those are the first words in the story of Resurrection morning. It could be that the narrator of John’s gospel only uses them to set the scene and move the story on to the next event. Truth be told, it’s astonishing that there is a next event, given the last we’ve heard of Jesus, he’s been crucified, died, and laid in a tomb.

But perhaps there’s also a deeper significance in these words. There is another “first day” in scripture, when God spoke a Word into the darkness that covered the face of the deep:“Let there be light.” And there was light. There was evening and there was morning, the very first day.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” the Easter story begins, but this time the darkness is the formless void, the watery chaos, of grief and despair. It clings thick around Mary Magdalene, the first person to show up at the tomb, seeking to honor her beloved teacher’s body. And when Mary sees the stone removed from the tomb, the darkness seems even deeper, insult added to the awful injury of Jesus’ unjust and untimely death. In a pre-resurrection world, the only logical reason for the tomb to be open is grave robbery.[1]

In a panic, Mary runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, “They have taken the Lord!” Suddenly there is a lot more running, as the two men race back and forth to the tomb. But there is a stillness in Mary, who stays, weeping, after the disciples have investigated the tomb and the clothing lying around inside.  The beloved disciple “believed,” but we have to wonder, what? Neither he nor Peter has any clearer understanding of what happened in that place. They go back home, saying nothing.

Mary’s stillness is the paralysis of continuing shock and grief. When she finally peers into the tomb herself, even a conversation with angels has little impact. The tomb is still empty of any answers to the mystery. But someone outside in the garden speaks a word, so Mary turns to see who is speaking.

The narrator tells us it is Jesus, so we can smile that Mary thinks he’s the gardener. But then we realize Mary’s made a pretty good guess. The one standing before her certainly knows a few things about the ways of life and death, the cultivation of birth and growth, the mysteries of decay and restoration.[2] And we remember again, back through scripture, to another garden, a place where the first human beings created walked with God in the cool of the evening, before they were turned out for their disobedience. The “gardener” standing before Mary was there in the beginning, according to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God…All things came into being through him. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Jesus was with God at the beginning of all things, and now, in this garden outside an empty tomb, we have come to a new beginning. God’s Word spoken anew in the risen Christ, and a new world, a new life, and a new creation have now come into being.[3] Preacher Bruce Prewer likens it to the Big Bang, the scientific theory in which “all time and space began with one unimaginable explosion from a singular, infinitively small point.” “…This time,” he writes, “it was a massive explosion of love-life. Easter is Big Bang, mark II!” [4]

I don’t know about you, but my brain begins to stall out when I try to comprehend the first creation, let alone try to fathom resurrection’s radical reorientation of the cosmos! For that’s what’s happened, you know, and it should be unsettling to us. As one preacher put it, if dead things don’t stay dead, what can you count on?[5]

So I can understand why Mary still doesn’t get it. She just wants the gardener’s help in getting things back under control. If he would tell her where the missing body lies, she can get on with her grim task. It turns out that a special word is needed to break into the shuttered darkness of Mary’s heart and mind, a particular word, in which the cosmic and the intimate come crashing together: “Mary!” At the sound of her beloved teacher’s voice speaking her name, she turns around again into the dawning recognition of a whole new world. Jesus is fully alive and present before her.

But here’s the hard part of the story, for when Mary responds, “Rabbouni!” We can just see her longing to throw her arms around him with tearful relief and incredible joy there in the midst of the garden which seems, for a moment, like a return to Eden.

But Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.” For resurrection is not a return to the dead past. Our Risen Lord will not be captured or contained by any previous experiences or expectations. We cannot return to Eden, because a new heaven and a new earth are coming into being. From the tiny point of the empty tomb, from the infinitely personal word of Mary’s name, of our names, called out by the Risen Savior, the new creation must expand out and spill from the garden, ripple by ripple, layer by layer, filling the universe with God’s newness.

And so we are, like Mary, sent out of the garden, but this time we do not go, weeping, but rejoicing, going to tell our brothers and sisters a new day has dawned. The Word made flesh in Jesus Christ lives among us still: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah, Amen!


[1] Gail O’Day, Commentary on John in The Women’s Bible Commentary, 389.

[2] Jan L. Richardson, Garden of Hollows, 22.

[3] Lucy Lind Hogan, Commentary at Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/8/2012&tab=4

[4] Bruce Prewer, “The New Big Bang,” http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C28eastd.htm

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