The Constant Gardener

by Andreea Bălan

Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

– Song of Solomon 4:16 –

My favorite time of the day is dusk.  It’s the interval between the sun’s sinking beyond the horizon and the twinkling of the first star.  Mighty Helios is already in his lair, having finished his great journey across the sky, yet light still lingers for a little while longer. There is something different about the quality of the light and the stillness of nature at dusk.  There is almost a sense of danger that comes along with it, when one passes from one stage to another.  It’s akin to a liminal stage, a rite of passage if you will — one stands at a threshold, when nature and humanity wind down from a long day and prepare for the night. Yet, paradoxically, it’s as if this time contained both what comes before and what comes after for what seems like mere seconds.  The same can be said about its twin, dawn — only in reverse.  One must be really still to capture these moments, or they are gone before consciousness can catch up with them.

Christ greeting the women at the tomb

When I picture Mary Magdalene walking to the tomb of Christ on that first Easter morning, I imagine that time (a few minutes? a few hours?) stood still or was suspended momentarily.  It was as if dawn lasted just a while longer before the day burst forth in all its splendor.  It was the liminal stage of humanity, when the age of the old human is left behind and the age of the new human takes its place.  This faithful woman, having seen her beloved suffer beyond any comprehension; having witnessed his disciples fleeing and abandoning him at the cross either out of weakness or stupidity or simply fear and disappointment (disappointment that he was not the fearless Messiah they were expecting to liberate Israel from the yoke of Roman slavery only to lead them to political independence and prosperity); and having buried his broken and disfigured body, meanders to his tomb to anoint him who has been dead three days.  What was Mary thinking at this time?  Maybe she was contemplating her chores for the day.  Maybe she was wondering who would roll away the tomb stone, something she had not calculated when she left home that morning, while it was still dark.  Maybe she was remembering the times she spent with Jesus while he was alive.  Maybe she was thinking of his words, still deeply etched in her mind and her heart.

As she approaches the burial place, Mary notices that the stone is gone.  In a state of panic, she runs back to alert some of the men that someone stole the Master’s body.  She makes the trip back home twice as fast, heart pounding, trying not to engage the grim thoughts that are already threatening to take over her mind.  She finds Peter and John, and together they run to the tomb.  The men enter the cave, and, having confirmed the woman’s story — no signs of the body, just the linen cloths lying there — they leave.  No words of comfort for Mary.  No effort to alleviate the obvious pain that she’s experiencing, so easily dismissed as a woman’s hysterics.  Ultimately, no reverence for the body — the woman’s “irrationality” is the only one that takes that into account.  The two disciples leave her in the garden, just as two days earlier they left Christ at the cross.

The sense of abandonment that Mary felt at that moment must have been crushing and incredibly isolating.  Yet it is precisely in this abandonment, which leaves us open to vulnerability, that we find ourselves in Christ’s company.  Jesus the man nailed to the cross the ideal of the male as the conquering stoic hero, the man of war who brings home the spoils of battle.  He refused to succumb to the seductiveness of power, crushing it under his feet, bruising forever the head of that serpent.  And just as humanity’s story begins in a garden, so does it end — but with a twist.  The woman is no longer blamed for her actions, abandoned by Adam when she needed him.  The New Adam identifies with the forsaken, yet faithful woman, who, in her agony, her face gleaming with tears, peeks into the tomb.  She is allowed to see what the men were not: two angels are sitting where Jesus’ body had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.  They address her directly, asking her why she is weeping.  Their presence cannot have been entirely calming, for who can stand to look upon such heavenly messengers without some measure of fear?  Mary hastens to answer, and her response betrays nothing but the utmost love for and devotion to the Lord, even in his death: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him”  (John 20:13).

Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the Gethsemane Garden

Unlike in the Garden of Eden, it is God who hides himself from man when he hears his footsteps, only to reveal himself to the woman, who, in her distress, turns around only to not recognize her Creator standing right in front of her, confusing him for the gardener (the irony!).  Hoping that this man can help her, she asks if perhaps he has taken the body — and if so, he only has to tell her where he hid it, and she will carry it back.  No tone of accusation.  No fingers pointed.  Just a burning desire to take care of Jesus, even though he may be a rotting corpse.  The same disregard for her own strength that she exhibited earlier (a few minutes ago? a few hours ago?).  Christ looks into the shining face of his friend, inwardly smiling.  He simply says, “Mary.”

One word — Mary — but in that word she recognizes him.  It is perhaps the only word that she has heard since his death without any hint of accusation, exclusion, or condemnation in it.  It is fitting that Mary does not discern Jesus’ identity at first: it is God’s prerogative to love first and to know first; we simply follow suit.

In this profound encounter, Jesus reverses the curse brought upon the woman as a result of her eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” declared Yahweh to a still nascent creature (Genesis 3:16).  The New Husband puts that imprecation to death.  No longer is the woman to be subdued, but she is the first to be entrusted with the proclamation of the gospel.  “Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17).

Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene in Warsaw, Poland

4 thoughts on “The Constant Gardener

  1. Fr Kilian (Sprecher)

    Just a few points of comment on some of the theological statements in this entry:

    1. Christ’s Body, as the Scriptures teach and as the Psalms prophesied, was not broken – pierced, yes, but not broken.

    2. I can appreciate the imaginative reflection on St. Mary Magdalene’s approaching the tomb, but to write: “No words of comfort for Mary. No effort to alleviate the obvious pain that she’s experiencing, so easily dismissed as a woman’s hysterics” seems to be reading way too much into the Apostle’s silence here. Who knows what or if the Apostles said anything to St Mary at that moment? But the absence of a statement in the Scriptural account does not mean we must interpret this to mean an “easy dismissal of a woman’s hysterics”.

    3. The reversal of the curse of the Tree in Orthodox teaching and theology comes about through Mary the Mother of God, not St Mary Magdalene.

    4. The same author (and this blog) have published entries before writing out the Divine Name (or Tetragrammaton). I for one am an uncomfortable reader of this; no where is this a part of our received Tradition. In the translations made from the Hebrew (where the Divine Name was written, but not pronounced as such) into Greek and Latin, we do not see the Divine Name, but it’s stand-in: “Dominus” and “Kyrios” – i.e., Lord. It would be preferable to use this term rather than writing the Divine Name out.

    1. ocawonder Post author

      Dear Father,
      Christ is Risen!

      Thank you for your comments. I know how much of a devoted reader you are, and we always appreciate feedback, especially when it’s well thought-out and a valid critique. We publish many different types of articles on the blog: academic papers, memoirs, reflections, creative pieces and poetry. Perhaps in the future we need to be better about specifically identifying which genre each of our pieces falls into. In my mind, this article is clearly a creative and emotional retelling of a scriptural story, sort of a midrash if you will. We have a strong tradition in our Church for the creative retelling of scripture both patristically in commentaries but also liturgically in our hymns and in preaching.
      You are correct of course in indentifying a place where the author is not precise. Indeed, scripture is clear that concerning Christ’s crucifixion “not a bone of His was to be broken.” Perhaps the author was appealing to the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah (Is. 52:14, 53:5) or perhaps she was trying to conjure a Eucharistic image in her readers (Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you…).
      The author was, I believe, trying to emphasize the unique place of Mary Magdalene in John’s Gospel (hopefully not at the risk of displacing our Mother the Theotokos). In John’s gospel, there seems to be a very deliberate emphasis on Mary Magdalene and the curious reference to the Garden. Interestingly enough, from a scriptural perspective, the Theotokos and Eve are less clearly defined, I think, than Mary Magdalene, and this is what the author’s piece brings to light. Of course, both the story of Adam and Eve, and the power of the Theotokos’ actions are things we are meant to take personally and Mary Magdalene is a primary example of this at the tomb as her actions point back to the self-sacrifice and courage of the Mother of God, who enabled salvation for us all.
      Forgive us, Father, if we have offended you by how we use the Lord’s name. I have specifically allowed certain versions and variations not because we use them in our tradition, but because they are so very strong in the American Christian environment. I had not previously considered that an English transliteration of the Tetragrammaton might cause offense to some. Of course, offense was not our intention. However, I do not see how writing out an English transliteration of the Tetragrammaton is analogous to writing the Tetragrammaton itself. Neither do I see how it is different from simply inserting “Lord” instead.

      In Christ,
      Andrew Boyd
      Managing Editor

  2. Fr Kilian (Sprecher)

    Indeed He is risen!
    Thanks for the thought-out and courteous response, which helps me to appreciate the entry in a different light now.

    I suppose regarding the Tetragrammaton in English, it’s a bit different than in Hebrew, where people are used to seeing letters, but the vocalization is always context dependent. So even though a Jew might see the four consonants in a scroll or a Masoretic text with pointing, the vowels that come to mind are not those of the name itself, but those for the Hebrew word “Lord” (adonai). I think in English, and other languages that don’t operate on the basis of triliteral roots, vowels are much more important and more “integral,” for lack of a better word, to the word itself. So when we write out the Tetragrammaton with vowels, our natural response is not to isolate the root consonants and vocalize it a different way, but to go ahead and say the whole world.

    It would have been just as easy for the Fathers of the Church to transliterate the Tetragrammaton and write that out in Greek/Latin/Slavonic/Georgian/(your ancient Scriptural language here). But they didn’t do that – they preserved an awe and dare I say holy silence on the divine Name itself, and continued the Jewish practice of substituting “Lord” for the divine name. So there is a difference, in fact, in inserting “Lord” for the divine name itself. This was the point I tried to make.

    Thanks for your response! I’ll keep reading the blog avidly (and maybe contributing again at some point in the future, if the topic and my busy schedule permits).

    In the risen Lord,
    Fr Kilian


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