Easter doesn’t often fall this close to Earth Day. But these two celebrations coming a day apart invite us to pay closer attention to the holiness of the earth, and the earthiness of Easter. The four gospels offer a different lens of encounters with the resurrected Christ. In Matthew, the resurrection resembles a theophany—with earthquake and blazing light. In Luke, the risen Christ is encountered as a teacher and confidant in the the Road to Emmaus story, then finally he is recognized in the breaking of bread. Mark’s account is mysterious, unresolved, leaving us hanging, with the women telling NO ONE. In the Gospel of John, Christ appears in a garden where Mary mistakes him for the gardener.
In an article called “Art and Theology”, Victoria Emily Jones writes:
Artists, primarily from the 15th & 16th centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus as gardener, carrying a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes wearing a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana and Rembrandt, show Jesus in gardening clothes. Images of Jesus the gardener was a traditional theme of orthodox scriptural exegesis. Mary’s misidentification was meant to remind us of a spiritual reality: Jesus is the gardener of the human soul, eradicating noxious weeds, one who “plants” us and grows us, getting his hands dirty in the soil of our hearts, and as St. Gregory the Great said, “flourishing seeds of virtue and bringing us to life”.
Dating back to the 4th century, Easter became a time for baptism, depicting candidates, known as catechumens, in a redemptive form of springtime renewal with imagery of the Garden of Eden. They were presented at the Easter Vigil Saturday night. At dawn Easter morning, they were baptized facing east at the font, in order to turn in the direction of Eden. Early baptismal fonts were decorated with images of the Garden of Eden/paradise: “animals, birds, fish, flowers, fruit-bearing trees, flowing rivers, and splashing fountains.” (Robin Jensen) And Ambrose of Milan preached to the newly baptized, “You were dry and you began to flower again in the abundant waters of the font.”
Throughout scripture there is a connection between God and gardening. Genesis 2 portrays God as the first gardener:
“God planted a garden in Eden, in the East, and there placed the human whom God had formed.”
The prophets wrote metaphorically of God as gardener – Isaiah 61:11:
“As the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus encourages his followers to think of his burial as a seed planted in the ground:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
John 19:41 mentions that Jesus was placed in a tomb in a garden, and ch 20, he was found walking in the garden. Mary mistakes him for the gardener. In 1882 Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon:
Behold, the church is Christ’s Eden, watered by the river of life, and so fertilized that all manner of fruits are brought forth unto God; and he, our second Adam, walks in this spiritual Eden to dress it and to keep it; and so Mary may have been right in “supposing him to be the gardener.”
Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker speak about their book: Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. It is a book the Wednesday BB group is currently reading. Their research showed that early Christians portrayed Christ in a garden, not on a cross. The most ancient depictions of Christianity joyously affirmed the earth AND worked for justice and compassion. It would not have occurred to them to glorify the crucifixion OR long for paradise after death. It wasn’t until the 10th century that churches began to depict Jesus on a cross. Rebecca & Rita embarked on a research journey visiting catacombs and the oldest known churches in Istanbul, Rome, monasteries in NE Turkey, and the Ravenna mosaics in Italy, and discovered there were no images of Jesus on the cross. The images showed Jesus as a child, Jesus as a youthful shepherd, a healer of the sick, a teacher. And frequent images of Jesus tending a garden paradise in a world marked by known rivers which identified the garden as existing in the here and now. They write:
“Paradise was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries. Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. In the early church, paradise was this world, not some place beyond this life, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.” Church walls were covered with pastoral landscapes, orchards, sparkling rivers filled with fish, lush meadows, sheep, birds, and flowers.
The bulk of the book shows the progression of how the cross ultimately became the primary symbol of Christianity, moving away from images of Paradise, to a suffering Jesus on the cross instead, but that is for another sermon. Although the short answer is that the Western Christianity became obsessed with substitution atonement and redemption through violence, replacing resurrection and life in this world, with a Crucifixion-centered salvation, changing its theology to justify war & domination in the late 10th century and beyond, during the Crusades, and abandoning its primary vocation of loving and caring for the earth and one another.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut gave humanity a failing grade when it came to caring for the earth, using Good Friday language:
“The crucified Planet Earth, should it find a voice and a sense of irony, might now say of our abuse of it, ‘Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.’
Except we do have a sense of our actions and the ways in which we are complicit, unless we choose to ignore or be in denial of scientific facts regarding climate change. In a very real sense, our devastation of Earth, can be understood as a modern-day crucifixion. Perhaps in connecting Easter with Earth Day, we have a chance to recover our love and responsibility for creation in a deeper way, becoming gardeners with Jesus, returning to Paradise of a flourishing Eden. Rev. Vicki Kemper, Amherst UCC said: What is earth care about, if not resurrection? What is the spiritual life about, if not transformation? What is God’s dream for us and all of creation, if not wholeness, restoration, harmony, and redemption?
In her journals, 17th c. mystic Jane Leade offers a spiritual vision of paradise. For Leade, entering paradise meant being spiritually transformed into a person rooted in love, who was growing and unfolding as a plant in the Garden of God. Leade addressed God as Mother, and as Sophia—Wisdom—and she reimagined salvation. For her, salvation was not the gift of a crucified savior whose death pleased a wrathful God and freed people from punishment. Instead, salvation was the re-opening of the Garden of Eden, and the restoration of humanity’s dignity, creativity, and responsibility.
Rediscovering paradise and recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is what is desperately needed – to stand at the open doors of paradise and re-enter this world as a sacred site, as holy ground.
Thomas Ryan – In the book, “Reclaiming The Body in Christian Spirituality”, says,
It is an Easter spirituality that loves the earth because the trinitarian God creates, redeems and loves the earth.
As an Easter people, we do not only believe in the promise of new life. We also lovingly partner with God and Christ to birth new life in the midst of death, decay, and despair. Amen.