Green shoots rising in a resurrection garden
The Master Gardener is still at work creating life and beauty in our world.by Marlene Kropf
My neighbor is a master gardener and demonstrates her growing skill with more elaborate, more beautiful gardens every year. Before she studied gardening, her backyard was an overgrown, poison ivy-infested hillside sloping down toward the St. Joseph River.
Every season she and her husband toiled on the hillside. One spring they hauled more than 500 huge rocks down the hillside to create borders for flower beds and a small fish pond. Another spring they installed a wooden staircase down the hill for easier access to the perennial garden below. Blue irises, giant purple allium, bright red canna lilies and large-leafed tropical plants dotted the hillside. Along the river’s edge flourished lush beds of Sweet William, snapdragons, columbine, lamb’s ear and lilies. Now when I arrive home, I often see the two of them sitting beside the pond, content in their garden sanctuary.
Though not so skillful or ambitious a gardener as my neighbor, I also enjoy the challenges and rewards of digging in the soil. But it’s been a long, cold winter in our region—one of the coldest on record. When I ventured outdoors on one of the first warm days, I searched in vain to find a single green shoot rising in my garden. It’s hard to believe any life still lurks beneath the matted frozen leaves and layers of winter debris.
On Easter we remember that Jesus was buried and raised to new life in a garden. Like a seed planted in the ground, Jesus came forth—fresh and green, a sign that God’s life cannot be stopped by all the forces of evil and death. In a fourth century catechetical lecture, St. Cyril of Jerusalem expands the metaphor: “Jesus was planted therefore in the earth in order that the curse that came because of Adam might be rooted out. The earth was condemned to thorns and thistles: the true Vine sprang up out of the earth, that the saying might be fulfilled, ‘Truth sprang up out of the earth, and righteousness looked down from heaven’ (Psalm 85:11).”
No painting of the resurrection captures the magnificent moment of the new creation better than Piero della Francesca’s 15th century fresco “The Resurrection.” When I traveled to Italy several years ago, it was this painting—of all the wondrous paintings Italy has to offer—that I most wanted to see (Aldous Huxley once called it “the greatest picture in the world”). A traveler has to be determined to see it, however, because the masterpiece can only be seen by driving many miles along winding roads through Tuscan hill country to the village of Sansepolcro, where the immense painting covers the wall of a room in the town hall. My attention was drawn immediately to the powerful central figure of the resurrected Christ, whose unflinching but stunned eyes seem not to grasp the wonder of what has happened at dawn on the Day of Resurrection. A second look, however, reveals that nature has understood well what just happened. On one side of the painting, the earth is bare and brown; tree limbs are empty of leaves. On the other side, the earth is alive as spring bursts forth in a flurry of freshness on a green hillside under bright blue skies. The whole creation is transformed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We must not forget that on Easter Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. When Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the empty tomb, she spoke her anguish to one she thought was a worker in the garden, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13b). But when Jesus’ voice penetrated her sorrow, her despair turned to wonder and joy. The first to hear the good news from Jesus himself, she was commissioned to proclaim the amazing message that Jesus was alive.
Early Christians grasped the depth of meaning in the garden scene. Though the First Adam, who was also a gardener, was expelled from Eden because of sin, the Second Adam restored the devastated garden and brought the promise of eternal life to all. In his book The Fragrance of God, Vigen Guroian writes, “No wonder at the empty tomb Christ came to Mary Magdalene as the gardener. For he is the Master Gardener, and we, we are his apprentices as well as the subjects of his heavenly husbandry.”
After the long, brutal winter we’ve just experienced, it may be difficult to rejoice or find signs of new life at Easter this year. Beyond the bitter weather we’ve endured, we’ve suffered numbing losses across the nation. In Elkhart County, Ind., where I live, nearly one out of five people is unemployed. Many other workers have had their hours cut—some by half—and most have sustained pay cuts. Retired people and those on the verge of retiring have seen much of their financial security wiped out. High school students who expected to go to college now realize that loans may not be available. And those who have always struggled to make ends meet are more desperate than ever. As the economy reels from one blow after another, we wonder if we will ever recover.
Though we would feel more secure in such trying times if our leaders were well-seasoned, we’ve just elected an enormously likable but untried young politician as President of the United States (whom we hope will work miracles, but no one knows how this story is going to play out).
Neither is the church exempt from grief and loss. As congregational budgets shrink, leaders are facing agonizing choices about staff and programs. Businesses, farms and factories that once provided generous support for mission and relief efforts are now unable to give as much. All our educational institutions have lost significant investment income and face extensive budget cuts.
In Mennonite Church USA we haven’t had much good news lately either. Some of the trends revealed in the Conrad Kanagy sociological study described in Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA give cause for grave concern. Will we continue to claim our Anabaptist-Mennonite identity and faithfully, creatively reinterpret it for our time? Will our graying church be up to the challenges of a postmodern world? Will we truly become one body of many races, colors, theological persuasions and economic groups? Will we take the risks of offering our unique gifts to the larger Christian community and to other faith traditions—and also learn from them?
In addition, Mennonite Church USA will soon lose the two dedicated leaders, Jim Schrag and Ron Byler, who guided our church through integration and kept a steady hand at the helm during the tumultuous first years of our new denomination. Without their faith and persistent courage, we would not have found many new and necessary ways to work together in the building of a church oriented toward God’s mission. But now we wonder: Will we find energetic new leaders with the wisdom needed for fresh and daunting challenges ahead?
To many it may feel as though Holy Week has gone on forever. And in such a time we might honestly ask whether or how to celebrate Easter. When he saw della Francesca’s fresco, poet Robert Corrin Morris reflected on Jesus’ descent into hell and the wounds he carried from the grave. In “A Greeting to the Risen One,” he observes that subdued celebrations might sometimes be in order:
“Let the trumpets be at least a little muted
in recognition that this victory is never won
without passages too difficult even to speak of
in the light of day.”
When my next-door neighbor faced her weedy, overgrown back yard, she could have succumbed to despair. To me, it looked hopeless. Yet season after season she endured endless hours of backbreaking work and numerous bouts of poison ivy in pursuit of her dream of a backyard paradise—and most of the time with good cheer. Not long ago her garden was a stunning entry in the Master Gardeners’ Summer Garden Walk—a feast of color and scent offered to crowds of delighted visitors.
What sustains my neighbor—and me—is the hope that what is planted will grow, that it will rise again with vigor and beauty. We have our work cut out for us as gardeners—clearing winter debris, digging deep, turning the soil, sowing the seed, weeding and watering and waiting. But the time will come, no doubt while we’re sleeping, when the life within the seed will burst forth. Some morning soon as I walk in my garden, I’ll be astonished to see tiny green shoots appear. The long winter will be over.
What Resurrection Morning proclaims is the good news that, out of destruction and death, the new creation springs forth. The Master Gardener, who planted a garden in Eden and raised Jesus to new life in a garden, is still at work creating life and beauty in our world. If we are not asleep, as the guards were at the garden tomb on the first Easter morning, we may see the bright splendor and fresh hope of green shoots rising in our resurrection garden.
Marlene Kropf is Mennonite Church USA Executive Leadership denominational minister of worship.
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