22 April 2019

Supposing Him to be the Gardener: Homily for Easter Morning, Catholic Parish Church of the Most Precious Blood, Southwark, April 21, 2019

Every so often I go to a beautiful garden. Over the years, I have got to know the gardeners, the students, the staff and the other supporters there as friends. Some of them are real characters; and not a few of them have pushed through terrible adversity to find in this place an outlet onto their true path in life. They are all incredibly gifted, honing their skills year upon year about every conceivable plant and variety; in what soil it will grow in shade or in sun; the sometimes hidden way it can be propagated; when its seed or bulb or as young plant it needs to be planted months before it grows up and blooms at exactly the right time; what it can grow next to produce colour and form in harmony and contrast. These gardeners are genius. In the seven months that the garden is open each year, they produce six waves of new flowerings in succession, as all the careful work in the preceding autumn, winter and spring results in new compositions of leaf and flower coming through in new colour as others die back, only to yield in turn as they are succeeded by later new flowerings.

Whenever I go to this garden, I am in awe. It is never the same from one year or season to the next. These people know exactly what they are doing to produce this constant cycle of bursts of glory and beauty amid the cycle of dying back and planting into the hidden covering of the earth.

It is no accident in design that the Tomb which this morning we find empty of Christ’s body but emanating from within it the angels, who indicate the activity within us and our world of heaven itself, is in a garden. The latest burial in the earth, this planting in succession to so many others before it, has been prepared from the ages before. Just as Christ was born of Mary at the fullness of time, so His death on the Cross, His burial and resurrection in the Tomb occur at the very moment which is the turning point in history upon which all that comes after hinges. From that instant there can never be un-resurrection from the dead. What Christ worked into our nature by being born, and dying in a body like ours, is the nature of God in his grace and glory revealed in the way that is for us. As St Paul says, we once saw it through a glass darkly, this grace and glory: through miracles and healings, through luminous, unforgettable parables that it takes a lifetime to comprehend, and then in the confrontations around the Temple, the agony in the garden three nights ago, the arrest of someone supposed to be the very Son of Man, the trials, the crucifixion and then the bearing away of the unbroken body to be lain down into death. This is what the workings of God look like in human form as He empties Himself of all but the inexhaustible supply of forgiveness and unconditional love come what may: thus “in the garden secretly and on the Cross on high... God’s presence and His very Self and Essence all Divine.” (From Praise to the Holiest in the height, in The Dream of Gerontius, John Henry Newman)

So, according to this carefully laid plan from before time, after Nazareth, after Bethlehem, then after the baptism in Jordan when we heard whose Son coming to us He was, then in Galilee, then on mount Tabor when we say Him shining out of our human body with the light of His undying ondoing of death and His new life in the Kingdom, then in Jerusalem with the palms and overturning the old tables, then the Thursday in the garden, then the night on trial, then Friday’s rejection by His people, then the way to Calvary, then the Cross, then the death and then the burial within the ground of our planet all in the end within those swift alarming twenty-four hours – comes another day like an eternity passes. At last on the third He rises; and the glory and beauty we see where in the place where it all began: in a garden cultivated from when it was first set out for this very moment of all moments, when the latest flower in succession shoots up, comes into leaf, then buds and opens up never to close again.

Now why was all this? So that after the resurrection there could be no de-resurrection. After dying there could only be undying. After rising again there could be no dying back. For just as he worked the life and nature and grace of His being God into humanity, through his life in our nature from his conception to his death, so what happens to Him now as God in human flesh raised from the dead happens to humanity in all its entirety too. St Paul points us to the garden to show this. He says, “It was sown a physical body; it was raised a spiritual body”. (I Corinthians 15.44) As with Christ, so with you. You live no longer for yourselves, but Godwards, toward God (Romans 14.8; II Corinthians 5.15), to the life of the Kingdom whose quality of living is not towards death but eternity, in the dimension of undying always and which is even now raised from the dead and open to the new life, never to be closed up again.

And how was all this? There is every answer possible to bring you to the foot of the Cross in tears, or to the lintel of the Tomb beside the once closed stone, rolled along its edge to its own opening never to shut itself up in darkness again; or to bring you to silence before the amazing message-bearers from heaven; or to face the obvious signs you can barely understand of some cloths left lying on the rock surface, as if nothing extraordinary has happened here.

Some say it is so that Christ could be victorious over death, and cheat the devouring beast of its prey by devouring it back in overwhelming heaven’s eternal life. Some say it is so that an innocent victim may outweigh the sin, its guilt within us and its power over us, as the Lamb of God takes them away. Some say it is because the outpouring of love is so endless that not even death can exhaust it, or human sin try its patience beyond the limit of God’s compassion, forbearance with us, and forgiveness, for there is no limit. The great poet and hymn writer, Charles Wesley, put it like this:
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me. (From And can it be that I should gain)
I was reminded of what this means when I went to the garden I told you about once. Once when I tried to buy some items in the shop from my friends there, they said, “Your money’s no good here.” I had to accept the gift without payment in the garden in the same way that the woman who came to the Tomb to anoint Jesus could not do Him this last duty, for all was already achieved, and the marvel of our redemption and resurrection into His own new life bought and paid for. As we sing of this:
There was no other good enough,
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate,
Of heaven and let us in. (From There is a green hill far away, Mrs C. F. Alexander)
 All we can do is to add ourselves, our souls and bodies, to the endless succession of planting and spring: sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body. St Paul calls this living sacrifice “the true spirit of worship” (Romans 12.1 [logike latreia: reasonable service (in the sense of deeply reasoned and pondered; spiritual service]): it is never our loss to death, but our release from lives imprisoned to the abundance of life in heaven lived in all its abundance, of necessity, here and now. (John 10.10). In the words of Isaac Watts:
Were the whole realm of Nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all! (From When I survey the wondrous Cross)
When Mary Magdalen sees Jesus and supposes Him to be the gardener, it is no mere case of mistaken identity. The Lord showed Himself to her exactly as He intended: the One who created our life in His Paradise at the beginning and, with sin and everything else having taken its toll and its turn, the One who has shown the Cross to be the key to unlock the Tomb that leads back into the Garden from which we have been rootless, planted nowhere, flowering poorly. No wonder that He said to the thief who died beside Him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. And here we are, face to face with the Gardener of Eden, holding on no longer to what has passed (John 2.17), but now established where we were always meant to be.