Christ the Gardener
Teresa McCaffery describes how a retreat at St Beuno's led her to reflect on our relationship with 'our Common Home' - the Earth, and how Christ is a gardener.
I’m just back from a retreat at St Beuno’s. Like many of the other retreatants I spent a fair amount of time in the garden when the weather was right. I read the scriptures and meditated in chapel, as you do, but found myself trying to help the garden too. A flowering plant was hidden under a blanket of sticky willie (it’s a weed with many names), I couldn’t resist removing it, and some dandelions and a bramble that shouldn’t be there either. On my way back to the house I noticed ivy growing up the apple trees. Ivy is a good enough plant, but I felt that the apple trees should put all their energy into bearing fruit; I got permission to strip it off.
It was Eastertide so I was meditating on the resurrection stories in John’s gospel, chapter 20. The story of Mary Magdalene predictably took up much of my attention. I followed her as she found the stone rolled away, assumed that the body of Jesus had been stolen and ran to tell Peter and John, who saw the grave clothes neatly stowed, realised that this was not the work of grave robbers and went back home. I watched her weeping as she looked into the tomb after they had gone and saw two angels sitting, one at the head and one at the foot of where the body should have been.
At this point my imagination ran riot. I saw two ladies chatting on the burial ledge, as on a park bench, responding to Mary’s frantic inquiry with a kindly “Sorry luv, there’s no dead body here”. I imagined Mary, totally committed to anointing the dead body of her beloved Jesus turn away frustrated again… and see Jesus but fail to recognise Him because He was not dead. Significantly, she took Him for a gardener.
Fortunately, I read the Tablet, which occasionally provides useful information to give sense and structure to my untutored mind. Sara Maitland, in her column on 25th May wrote about the same story but she had access to biblical information. She pointed out that in 1kings 6:19-36 we read about the space created to contain the Ark of the Covenant: The Holy of Holies. This was a huge cubic area, 20 cubits wide, deep and high. It could have been any shape, decorated with the most sumptuous materials, pictures and carvings that man could produce, but no; the room was filled with two huge Angels. They are called Cherubs, which makes me think of little baby faces, but these are Cherubim: those who express the will of God. Their extended wings filled the entire space, wall to wall and up to the ceiling. In 1 Kings 8:6-8 we read how the Ark of the Covenant, carried about on two long poles, was reverently placed in the Holy of Holies, cherub wings sheltering the Ark and its shafts. The Ark contained the two tablets of the law and represented the promise of God to care for His people.
The Tomb and the Ark
Is there any connection between all this and the empty tomb with its seated angels?
Has the tomb which protected the dead body of Jesus exploded because the Risen Christ fills the whole earth?
Have the carved angels become real angels? And are they seated because their work is done?
Has the law of love replaced the tablets of stone? Has the covenant with Israel become the knowledge that we are no longer slaves but sons of God?
If so, what has become of that strange, empty space around the Ark created by the angels’ wings?
Maitland says this of it: ‘The silent empty space those wings frame is the image of the unnameable God… (T)he God whose name must not be spoken, is present in that silent darkness. Only the high priest and He can enter this holy and secret place…’.
If the context is the whole world how can such a space be found within it?
An empty space
If we imagine that the cubic building has become the sum of all man-made structures, we can start looking for the ‘empty’ spaces – those that are of no interest to man. Places that are too difficult to build on or farm, or too far away to reach. We call these places ‘countryside’, or ‘wild nature’. These places have in the past been literally and metaphorically left in peace – because we have no use for them. But humankind is ingenious and greedy for resources. These empty spaces become smaller and smaller, and that is not all.
The invasion of wild places
Only God and the high priest were free to enter the Holy of Holies, but there is no such ban on our countryside and wild places. In our desperation to do more, make more, and have more we invade them. They become a dumping ground for anything we no longer want and a place where we can demonstrate our human strength and determination. The peace of the countryside is destroyed by the roar of Quad bikes and 4x4s, the purity of snow clad mountains by the excrement of those who want to demonstrate their ability to climb them, the stars are blotted out by the glare of town lights and animals lose their way because the lights from the shops are brighter than the light of the moon that should guide them. Carbon dioxide from our relentless need for fuel changes the climate, plastics in the ocean kill the creatures of the deep, pesticides in the water destroy the fertility of fish.
Protecting the environment
Fortunately, some of this depredation is affecting us, and making us think about whether and how we can protect these spaces. We make laws to protect sites of special scientific interest. We set up nature reserves, we do carbon offset, planting trees to absorb the carbon dioxide our fuel puts into the air. We aim for this and that target for carbon neutrality, we replace petrol and diesel fuel with electricity, which may come from wind farms and solar panels, or coal or nuclear fuelled generators. We want our world to be a stable environment, beautiful to live in but can we really do what is needed to keep our world healthy without the concept of a physical space set apart for God?
Laws that are not enforced mean nothing. So long as our needs outstrip the immediately available resources, we will break laws and plunder other countries. North America and north west Europe are way ahead of the rest of the world in the development of machinery which enables us to go anywhere, work anywhere, and extract whatever we need, from minerals to ‘human labour’. It has made us very rich. Can we blame the people of other countries for wanting what we have?
Jesus the gardener
Our Christian heritage has taught us humility to admit our mistakes, forgiveness, willingness to forgo some luxuries even if we can afford them financially and, most of all, love and care for the people, plants and animals put in our charge. These are the tools we must use.
Is this why John said that the risen Christ looked like a gardener?
The gardener must respect the needs of both householder and plants. He must create space for growing food and playing games as well as providing a beautiful view from the house, and smooth paths to walk along. The planting must be suited to the local soil, the availability of warmth and sunshine, the amount of space available. Plants do not obey laws, some will die if not given the right conditions and others smother the entire garden if not kept in check, plants that give fruit must be pruned. This is in their nature; they are neither good or bad.
The world as a garden
The angels’ wings in the Holy of Holies were carved by human hands. In the Mass we offer “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”. What is this work of ours? Care of our common home has been set as a priority by the Society of Jesus, and many others would agree. Should we not join Jesus in His gardening of the world?
When we put a window box in a high rise flat, grow plants and flowers in the garden (if we have one) instead of covering it up with slabs and decking, when we prevent existing green spaces from being turned into housing or car parks, we protect this divine space. When we teach conservation and help people to find ways of growing food that do not destroy the environment and listen to local people who may know more than we do, when we respect the dignity of indigenous people, and humbly acknowledge the foolish way we have squandered our resources, we make changes that will be effective, and last. And we will have fresh air, exercise and fun in the process.