Christ the gardener – 30 April 2018
This image depicts the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene, who mistakes him for the gardener. (Peniarth MS 482D, 15thC English)
A tiny picture from an illuminated manuscript, Christ is dressed as a gardener, with a spade in his hands. Mary kneels before him. She can see the wounds on his hands and feet. They are in a garden, which is properly fenced and planted with trees. Mary has opened the gate to enter. In the garden, where we might expect a sepulchre, there is a pool.
The first gardener in the Bible is God. ‘The Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden’, Genesis 2 tells us. And it is in this garden that the first humans sin. Adam and Eve are expelled, and the way back into the garden blocked for them. The story depicted here comes from John 20, where Christ rises on the first day of the week and tends the garden of the new creation, in which Mary is welcome. He is both God and the second Adam.
Christ is both the gardener and a plant that grows – he is the seed sown that it may die to bear much fruit, and he is the vine to whom all who would be fruitful must be connected.
As the gardener, he is the one who plants us and grows us. We are planted in his garden and watered through baptism and the Spirit.
Christ as gardener was often a theme in sermons on John’s gospel from the first centuries of Christianity, and images such as this one were common from the late medieval period onwards. Christ is both the source and encourager of virtue, and of the fruits of the Spirit that should be growing in the lives of every baptised person. As Mary recognises who he is (both risen Lord and gardener of her soul), she is the exemplar for all disciples to come.
Perhaps this woman (Mary Magdalene) was not as mistaken as she appeared to be when she believed that Jesus was a gardener. Was he not spiritually a gardener for her when he planted the fruitful seeds of virtue in her heart by the force of his love?
Gregory the Great
I am the vine, and my Father is the gardener.… Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.
Spirit of the Living God,
be the Gardener of my soul.
For so long I have been waiting, silent and still–
experiencing a winter of the soul.
But now, in the strong name of Jesus Christ,
I dare to ask:
Clear away the dead growth of the past,
Break up the hard clods of custom and routine,
Stir in the rich compost of vision and challenge,
Bury deep in my soul the implanted Word,
Cultivate and water and tend my heart,
Until new life buds and opens and flowers.