Both the lectionary readings and the Daily Office readings for Holy Week tell again and again how Christ Jesus was seen after the Crucifixion. The women at the empty tomb. The skeptical eleven. The disciples fleeing to Emmaus. But the one that touches me the most is in the Gospel of John (20:1-18). Mary Magdalene has gone to the tomb, found it empty, and rushed to tell Simon Peter and the one whom Jesus loved. Peter and the younger man engage in a frantic foot race, and find the tomb empty. The swifter, presumably younger, disciple saw and believed, however, “for as yet they did not know the scripture that he must rise from the dead (Jn 20:9). What did he believe? He was missing, yes, but was that all? The men went home, but Mary stayed.
The narrative is poignant. She stands weeping, and stoops to go into the tomb again. To be sure he is not there? To be close to where his linen shroud is, to be near, to hold, something of her beloved? Weeping. Probably convulsed with sobbing, blind with tears. She sees two angels sitting on the stone shelf where his body had lain. “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have put him.” He is gone. She is frantic. But they don’t answer her. She turns and sees someone. He asks her the same question that the angels did, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She takes him for the gardener, and tells him her Lord is gone, and if he will tell her where he has taken him, she will take her Lord’s body away. When Jesus says her name, “Mary,” she knows him and answers, “Rabboni, Teacher.” Her first desire it to touch him, clasp him, hold him. But he tells her not to touch him. While later in John, Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, here, he is not yet in the Resurrection body, for he is not yet ascended. She is instructed to go back to the men and tell what she has seen.
Why the gardener? Just a case of mistaken identity? Not likely, especially from the Gospel of John, a gospel of complex mature Trinitarian theology, expressed in powerful language, and often in opaque statements. The importance of Jesus the Gardener is often left behind as the narrative of Jesus’ first appearances unfolds. But the gardener is important, neither trivial nor accidental.
The Temple in Jerusalem was seen as the earthly heir of the Garden of Eden. It was where the Holy of Holies dwelled, Doesn’t Jesus say that he is the Temple who will be raised in three days (John 2:19)? And what does Jesus say over and over again about planting and growing and pruning and watering? The parable of cursing the fig tree (Mt 24:32-35; Mk 13:28-31; Lk 21:29-33). The parable of the tree and its fruits (Mt 7:15-20; Lk 6:43-45). Jesus as the pruner (Jn 15:1-8), which begins, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes.” Jesus is the Gardener. Jesus is the Temple. Jesus is the Garden that bears the fruit of the Spirit. When Mary sees him as the Gardener, this is not casual, not a case of mistaken identity. Jesus is the heart and soul of good growth, of eternal life, of Resurrection.
He knows her name, this Gardener, as he knows our names of each and every one of us. Mary stayed. Mary loved. The eleven to whom Jesus appears later in the chapter also love, but they are hiding in fear. Thomas needs to test the reality of Jesus, now able to be touched, now having ascended to his Father. But Mary stayed and wept.
Jesus could not even allow Mary to touch him, Mary who loved so much, who poured nard on his feet and wiped them with her hair (Jn 12:1-8). This is a turning point of the Resurrection narrative in John. Jesus not yet ascended, not touchable. Then, Jesus ascended, and made flesh in a different flesh, as he appears to the eleven. The many appearances of Jesus raised from the dead are fundamental to our faith as Christians. Jesus is fully human. Jesus is fully God. Jesus died on the Cross for us, and he rose from the dead. Not a metaphor. Not a myth. And yet, as 21st century post-modern people, how can we wrap our minds around this, except by faith? If not Resurrection, who are we? Lost sheep abandoned by our God after our short time on earth, a blink in the Life Eternal of God?
Mysteries are mysteries for a reason, and the reason is not reason as we know it from science and philosophy. They are there to touch our deepest heart. As they touched Mary’s when she heard her name, but was forbidden to touch the one she loved more than anything or anyone else. She obeyed, but she must have been hurting, confused, through the relief and love she felt from just seeing him. As we may see glimpses of him, love him, but cannot touch him in this life. She was sent on her errand, not that her reception by the men was ever as gentle and loving as the one from her Lord. But she went. Did she ever see the Resurrected Christ again in this life? We don’t know. Did she receive the Spirit as did the men? We don’t know, but I can’t see how she could not have. Did she learn in the Spirit how to spend her life in the presence of her Lord, the Holy One, in prayer, devotion, spreading his word as she knew it? We don’t know. What we do know is that she sat at his feet, and she listened to him. Just as his Father instructed the three disciples who went with Jesus up the mountain when they saw the Transfiguration. And we know that she, too, saw Jesus transfigured, in the body not yet ascended.
What about us on Easter, after a long and moving Vigil, perhaps baptisms welcoming new souls into the Body of Christ? Perhaps on Sunday with a large rowdy family, joyous, if someone secular, waiting for the feast which follows the Feast of God? What did we see? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” Can we put ourselves by the tomb with Mary and see the Gardener, and hear him call us by name? Can we answer, “Teacher”? “My Lord and my God”? He is risen. He is risen indeed.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.