“She Supposed He Was the Gardener”: Misidentifying Jesus, An Eastertide Meditation

“She supposed he was the gardener.” John 20:15

We Christians hunker down for 40 days of Lent, living into the death of Jesus Christ, reliving his sacrifice in small ways. But then the joy and surprise of new life on Easter often is celebrated for just a single day. In fact, there are also 40 days of Easter-tide — until Ascension Day — and we Christians ought to live just as deeply, if not more, into the resurrected life of Christ. Furthermore, given the dire straits of our planet at this time, we ought to make our entire lives into an Easter-tide. Let me explain why that makes sense.

Before I say more, I want to offer a personal note. I grew up just off Yonge Street in the big city of Toronto, but I always gravitated toward the large, forested ravine along one of the tributaries of the Don River that ran right through the city. It was a world of racoons and wild raspberries, cliffs and thunderstorms–intriguing, adventurous, full of wonder.

Church seemed like a radically different experience. It was always indoors, and involved lots of sitting still and listening a book being read followed by speeches. The people were kind, and the songs were captivating at times, but it always seemed a world away from my experiences in nature. Why did I have to leave nature for church, and leave church to be in nature?

So I want to turn to the gospel of John. What I want to argue here is that Mary Magdalene’s mistake in identifying the risen Christ as the gardener is a beautiful mistake (John 20). In fact, its no mistake. Many Christians have misidentified Jesus and made him into a private Saviour, or a Man of Large Buildings, turning Easter into being primarily about our personal comfort and indoor life, rather than the age-old promise of the renewal of all creation. In sum, Jesus is indeed the Master Gardener, the Creator in disguise, the New Adam redeeming Eden in the form of a new earth.

Creation Participates in the Passion

Jesus death rattled the more than the disciples. During the crucifixion, Matthew 27 tells us the land became dark for three hours from noon until 3 pm, and “the earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.” It was like the creation was participating in the violence of the crucifixion—all the betrayals, the desertion, the torture, the injustice, the sadistic cruelty and finally, the God-forsaken loneliness on the cross. It was all reflected in nature.

Similarly, when Jesus foreshadowed this a week earlier on Palm Sunday when the crowd cried “Blessed is the King!” and the Pharisees urged Jesus to shush them. “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40).

Then there is John 19:41, a remarkable text: it records “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb.” Its counter-intuitive: Golgotha had a garden. And this is where they buried Jesus. Matthew 27:61 says that Mary and Mary Magdalene were there, and sat by the tomb, watching, remembering (The VOICE translation adds those two last words).

I repeat: “At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb.” Let me playfully suggest that all the best gardens are given generous loads of compost—rotting vegetable matter. As Mary and Mary keep watch, Jesus decomposes in death, and so does all the brokenness, stubbornness, and failures of Israel decompose with him. If Jesus death is about anything, its about turning things over and around, its about reversing death and turning it to life, its about taking all the violence and hate and turning it into love, light and life, taking the idolatries, rebellions, and injustices of Israel, and symbolically, our treacheries and travesties, and burying them. Like compost in the garden.

Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene is back to the garden. Now, Mary is no prostitute: if you look at Luke 8:1-3, you’ll see she is listed as one of the three female patrons of Jesus. She is a woman of means, and she brings spices for the body, says Mark. We are told Jesus had healed her of demonic illness, and now she came to anoint his body as a bereaved friend. But the body is gone.

Angels, more commonly translated as messengers, are there, but this seems of no comfort to her. She is startled, upset, and becomes frantic. Who could have stolen the body? In the movie, The Gospel of John, Jesus is bending over behind a fern, and Mary can’t see him clearly. He looks like a gardener, tending some plants. Mary misidentifies him through her tears, hoping he knows something about this cryptic event.

She supposed he was the gardener. She asks if he knows where the body was taken.

This was it. This was the great moment. Her Lord has risen from the dead, death and sin and hell have been conquered, and he lives! But Mary misidentifies Jesus. She misses that her Master stands before her, victorious over the grave. She mistakes him for a gardener; but even through his fresh wounds, Jesus recognizes her.

John’s Creation Theme

I want to pause here in the story because I want to step back from this moment, and suggest that Mary’s mistake in light of John’s gospel and the whole New Testament is no mistake. Jesus is, and will always be, the Master Gardener.

I found this article entitled “The Creation Theme in the Gospel of John” (by Adam Kubiś in Collectania Theologica 90, 2020, no. 5, 375–414). Its 39 pages long, elaborating on creation references in John’s gospel. I will touch on just a taste of the material it explores. For example, the gospel patterns itself after Genesis from the start: “In the beginning…” and the next verse repeats, speaking of the Word, the Logos: “He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

There are references to plants, seeds, and vines through the gospel. In chapter 12:24 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” In chapter 15:1 he explains, “I am the vine and my Father is the gardener.”

Even in this scene in chapter 20, some say Jesus acts as the new Adam tending the garden, calling Mary “woman” and then saying her name “Mary” just as Adam named Eve. The two angels guard the tomb as the cherubim guarded Eden, but this new Eve does not disobey as Eve did, but does precisely what Jesus asks by going to tell the disciples the good news. Its Eden redeemed.

The article concludes, maintaining that within John’s gospel, Jesus is both the Creator and the New Adam who continues, completes, and renews the work of creation.

Jesus the Master Gardener

Now if that feels a little bit too subtle for you, and you don’t quite recognize Jesus as the Master Gardener through John’s allusions, then if we look deeper into New Testament theology, it’s certainly an appropriate title for the risen Christ. Take for example, Roman 8, which talks about the resurrection of our bodies and the hope we have in Christ, testifies that creation was subject to frustration, and it groans in the hope, verse 21 that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The Message version on this says, “the creation itself can hardly wait for what is coming next.”

If this is startling news, it could be that many of us Christians have misidentified Jesus, too: as the Christ of My People, My Politics, My Piety, rather than the Christ of the whole planet. We have misidentified him as a private Saviour, all about the Big Me, or only concerned for human rescue, and not the whole earth. Maybe it’s the recent influence of Rapture Theology, that promises certain Christians will be extracted from the earth and taken to some heaven lightyears away that has blinded us to the Master Gardener. Maybe its an image of Wrathful Christ, the Earth Destroyer, who returns not to make a new heavens and a new earth as the book of Revelations ends, where we read of the glorious New Jerusalem transforming our world, but instead he comes with anger and fire to burn it all in a giant apocalyptic blaze that ends in oblivion and hell.

In sum, a contingent of Christians have misrecognized Jesus as a personal mascot or a Raging Royalty rather than the Master Gardener of all Creation. If so, Mary’s mistake can be a gracious corrective. As for the disciples of that day, Mary points the way.

British theologian N. T. Wright says over and over in his books, echoing the biblical themes of creation, fall, and redemption, and saying that God’s engagement has always been with all creation. He explains: “’Resurrection’ was not simply a pious hope about new life for dead people. It carried with it all that was associated with [Israelite] return from exile itself: forgiveness of sins, the re-establishment of Israel as the true humanity of the covenant God, and the renewal of all creation…” Read Isaiah! In effect, the resurrection of Jesus is the model of what God is doing with the whole created order.

Our family recently bought a copy of the First Nations Version of the Bible, published by Intervarsity Press. The name “Jesus” is never used. Instead, they play with the meaning of the Aramaic name, and he is consistently referred to as “Creator Sets Free.” That’s heading in the right direction with regards to the world-wide ministry of Jesus.

Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew speak similarly in their book The Drama of Scripture: “Jesus’ return from the grave is the dawn of the new day: God’s people and all creation will share in his resurrection life.” In other words, Christ’s rising is a representative resurrection: variously called in the NT “firstborn” “firstfruits” and “pioneer of salvation,” Jesus arose bodily from death as the activator and symbol of the renewal of all creation (168).

Key to all this is that the resurrection was a bodily resurrection and not a mirage or ghostly spirit. Physical reality was renewed and reconstituted in the dark tomb. This is right in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” A poem from John Updike puts its quite starkly:

Make no mistake;

if He rose at all it was as his body;

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,

the church will fall.

Not only the church falls, however. What we are saying is that the creation falters, too, if the resurrected Jesus was just a ghost.

Few hymn writers have recognized this in their Easter compositions. But one in particular is not shy: “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” follows with a second line: “all creation joins to say, Alleluia!” and then “Sing O heavens and earth reply, Alleluia.” Why would all creation rejoice if it was going to be left behind in the resurrection? The gospel of Mark ends with Jesus saying to his disciples: “preach the gospel to all creatures.” Why? Because the resurrection of the Christ is for all things, not just people. This is the Big Gospel entrusted to Christians; the true story of the whole world.

We know our planet needs to hear that good news now as much as ever. We must not misidentify the Christ as anything less than the Master Gardener come to renew the whole earth. 

Painting Jesus as a Gardener

Art historians will tell us that centuries of painters somehow recognized the risen Christ as a gardener. In Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb” (1638) we see Christ in the garb of a gardener. The light of dawn is coming over the horizon in contrast to the dark tomb, and Jesus is depicted sporting a giant gardener’s hat, with a shovel in one hand and some other tool, perhaps a knife in his belt. He is set to work. He is in fact, a gardener. This was no mistake of Mary’s in Rembrandt’s eyes.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb” (1638)

A modern painting conveys similar sentiments about the Christ. Entitled “The Gardener” by Joel Briggs, an artist from California, it was painted during COVID last year. Briggs is deeply concerned that we not to misidentify and diminish the risen Christ. He writes about this work: “In my daily sufferings with anxiety and the fragility of existence, a Christ who redeems me to an ambiguous half-existence of a floaty nirvana is destructive.” Instead, he says, “I need a Christ with dirt under his fingernails and oxygen in his lungs, who is bringing new order to the old chaos, new life to the old, worn-out wastelands.”

One can see the references to Noah here. The dove, the rain, the sprig of a plant. Note that the Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 wasn’t just with Noah. Six times in that chapter the Bible records that the covenant to never destroy the earth was with “you, me, and every living creature.” The creation-wide purview of the Scriptures stretches from Genesis to Revelation.

What is especially striking about this painting is that it shows the risen Christ as wounded and in the midst of a scorched earth. The landscape is bleak. It’s real to our condition. But with his dove, a seedling to plant, and his shovel to dig into the dirt, he looks ready to turn the tide of ruin. If death could not destroy him, a ravaged earth will not either.

This is important for Christians living in a mechanized and hedonistic society: Jesus calls us even as he comforts us. His first concern is not our materialistic gain, our affluence, our prosperity, but rather our participation in his great restoration project for a groaning creation.

Yes, like with Mary, Jesus says our name. He knows us all, and he cares for everyone, and he speaks in tones that we would recognize, that tell us that we are loved. But also like Mary, he says don’t cling to me for your own comfort and assurance: go and spread the news. And remember: the news may be first for the disciples, but it is ultimately for the whole cosmos.

Mary supposed he was the gardener. Mary’s mistake can be our corrective, and that a rich creation theology can keep us from the self-centred and earth-destroying idea that Jesus is all about the Big Me that has become the focus of our modern consumeristic world. Jesus was resurrected in his body, and that was as the first fruit of all creation.

To end where I began: I believe this kind of theology opens a way, such that church can lead us to nature just as nature can lead us to church. Both deal in awe, humility and gratitude. We only need to keep the connections alive. I believe our indigenous brothers and sisters can show us a pathway here, but that’s another blog for another day.

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