An Easter Meditation on John 20:1-18.
So what about you? What about you and this story, you and this lovely, lonely garden, you and this Jesus-looking-gardener? Whatever you make of it—mostly myth, sacred story, poetry perhaps—whatever you make of it, this story’s reaching out for you. This gardener’s looking you in the eye. What about you? he asks. What kind of life is rising in your heart today? What kind of passion is stirring in your gut right now? He holds your gaze, this gardener; he doesn’t look away. What about you?
Did you know that a hundred years ago, in the Deep South, the whole notion of being ‘born again’ was rarely tossed about. Instead, when someone wanted to describe some kind of awakening, some kind of a breakthrough into a relationship with Jesus, she’d say: “I was seized by the power of a great affection.” Seized by the power of a great affection. Isn’t that a sweet way to describe the experience—what happens when grace intrudes and your heart expands! It’s about tenderness and compassion. It’s about doors opening and passion deepening.
I want to offer up the possibility that there are doors opening even now, even this morning, in your life. I want to offer up the possibility that this whole Easter story is personal for you. It finds you and me weeping and grieving. It finds us unimaginably lonely. It finds our world weary with war and accusation. But it finds us. Jesus like a gardener. Jesus full of love. Jesus rising on the rest of our lives. And you, today, maybe, maybe, seized by the power of a great affection!
I imagine Mary of Magdala has experienced just this—several times, many times, over the days and months she’s spent with Jesus. When so many others judged her or feared her or misunderstood her, Jesus looked at her face, at her hands, at her heart, and saw love. When she doubted herself, Jesus called her ‘friend’ and insisted she minister and serve just as he did. On the dusty roads of Galilee, Mary was seized by the power of a great affection. Over simple suppers of bread and wine, she was seized by the power of a great affection. Watching Jesus touch untouchables and disarm armies, she was seized by the power of a great affection. Not just from the outside. Not just from beyond herself. But a great affection deep, deep within.
Can you imagine her grief, her unimaginable grief—when he’s killed, when Jesus’s taken so brutally and nailed to that bloody cross? It’s not just him betrayed up there, crucified up there, but Mary’s affection too. Those long, long conversations on the road, the ones that never seemed to end. Those quiet nights over bottles of wine and loaves of bread. Those songs they sang of liberation and freedom and love, love, love. It’s all up there on the cross, pierced through, nailed dead.
And now she stands there, Mary of Magdala, just outside Jesus’ tomb, weeping for all of it: weeping for the teacher who had love in his eyes, weeping for the world that seemed so whole and holy days before, weeping for her own broken heart. No matter who you are—you know Mary of Magdala; you know where she’s been and you know where’s she’s standing now. You might be a disciplined scientist or a footloose mystic, or both. Atheism might be your thing or Christianity or Buddhism. But you know Mary. You know where she’s standing now. Outside an unexpected tomb. Shattered in a thousand ways. Weeping for what was and will never, ever be. You’ve been there. Every one of us has been there. Wondering what we might have done different. Grieving for mistakes made and love betrayed.
There’s a gardener hanging around. Maybe it’s the rich brown dirt caked to his knees or flaking from his knuckles. Maybe it’s wildflowers spilling out of his hands. Or maybe he just seems comfortable, at home, at peace among the bright blossoms and dusty landscape. You know how gardeners just seem happy on their knees, content close to the earth.
There he is, this gardener. Disheveled. At home. Happy on his knees. And he sees Mary weeping, disoriented, shattered. “Woman,” he says, “why? Why are you weeping? Who are looking for?” And Mary tells him: she’s just looking for Jesus’ body, just hoping to honor him in death, just hanging on for another day.
And the gardener says, “Mary!” Just this, one word, her name: “Mary!” Now I want to tell you a little bit about that word: ‘Mary’ or, in Hebrew, ‘Miriam.’ Because it’s really kind of interesting. There’s some sense that the name traces all the way back to an Ancient Egyptian word meaning ‘beloved.’ Or ‘one who is beloved.’ “Mary!” And there’s some other sense that it finds its way back to a Hebrew word meaning ‘bitter.’ Or ‘one who struggles bitterly.’ “Mary!”
So the gardener says this one word, “Mary!” Because he knows who Mary is. Because he recognizes her humanity, her soul, her struggle for survival. Jesus sees Mary’s pain and her terrifying loneliness, even her—bitterness. And he also sees the love in her eyes, the image of God in her tears, her passion for life. “I know who you are,” the gardener says, Jesus says. “And you are whole in my eyes. You and your pain. You and your bitterness, breaking your heart. You and your precious, precious spirit. You are whole in my eyes.”
And that’s how it happens. That’s where Mary’s seized by the power of a great affection. In the garden. Early in the morning. With the gardener who sees her whole. With the Risen Friend who loves her beyond measure, beyond belief, without question. “Mary!” he says. I know who you are.
So, friends, whatever else you take from this Easter service, take this piece. The gardener speaks your name. The gardener sees you whole. Just as you are. Just as you stepped in out of the rain and the cold this morning. Jesus recognizes you. Jesus recognizes the unique blessing, the holy light in your eyes. And Jesus needs you. Not because you’re a perfect human being: because not one of us is. Not because you’re lived a mistake-free life; because not one of us has. You don’t have to be a perfect parent or partner or spouse. You may well have made huge mistakes in your life. This isn’t about all that. This is about Jesus recognizing in you a brother he needs for the long haul, a sister whose friendship he cannot live without. This is about a love that sees you as you are, exactly as you are, and calls you by name.
And suddenly Easter rises on the rest of your life.
The writer Brennan Manning tells a story about an afternoon he spent with an Amish family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was invited to lunch by the family patriarch, an old widower named Jonas Zook. Jonas lives on the family farm with two daughters and two sons. Barbara’s 57 and manages the household. The three others—Rachel at 53, Elam at 47, Sam at 45—are all developmentally disabled. Profoundly so.
When Brennan Manning and a couple friends arrived that day at noon, “Little Elam” was coming out of the barn some fifty feet away. He was called “Little Elam” by his siblings because he was—about four feet tall, heavy-set, thickly bearded, always wearing that black Amish outfit with the circular hat. Little Elam had never seen Brennan in his life; yet when he saw him get out of his car, he bolted straight for him. Little Elam, 47, on the run. Two feet away, this tiny man launched himself into the air, threw himself at the visitor, and wrapped his stocky arms around the bewildered Brennan’s neck. Not at all finished, Elam wrapped his legs around Brennan’s waist; and he kissed the man smack on the lips.
Brennan was stunned briefly—how could he not be? But in the twinkling of an eye, he says, Jesus set him free. He recognized something holy, something liberated, something totally free going on. So he returned Elam’s welcoming kiss. And the little man jumped down, wrapped both arms around Brennan’s right arm, and led him on a first-class tour of the family farm. It turns out the Zooks raised pigs for a living. Little Elam pulled out all the stops.
Sometime later, at lunch, Elam sat down next to his new best friend. Honored. Delighted. But when Brennan Manning swung around to say something to another guest, inadvertently his pointy right elbow slammed hard into Elam’s rib cage. He didn’t wince; he didn’t groan. But Little Elam simply wept, wept like a child. What else could he do? I want to read for you Brennan Manning’s own words about what happened next:
His next move, he writes, utterly undid me. Elam came to my chair and kissed me even harder on the lips. Then he kissed my eyes, my nose, my forehead, and cheeks. And there was Brennan, dazed, dumbstruck, weeping, seized by the power of a great affection.
You get the picture? Little Elam with tears in his eyes. Little Elam with his ribs hurting like hell. Little Elam looking his new friend in the face—and kissing him, kissing his eyes and his nose and his forehead and his cheeks. That’s Easter. That’s Love making sure you don’t miss the point. That’s the gardener rising from his work, caked with dirt, and greeting you with the sound of your own name. And friends, that’s Jesus reaching for you this morning, and asking you to feed the hungry and disarm the nations and sing songs of peace.
Could it be, is it possible—that this whole Easter thing is about you? That it’s about Jesus reaching for you, opening doors for you, seizing you with the power of a great affection? Maybe you’ve been weeping in the garden all night. Maybe you know bitterness—what it tastes like, what it does to the heart. Maybe you’ve given up—it happens, sometimes. And then there’s Little Elam, coming at you, full force, all lips and love. There’s this gardener, fists full of roses and lilies, at home on the planet and inviting you home too. There’s Jesus—setting a table and inviting everyone and washing feet and finding the lost. “And everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, everything is in Him transformed and recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in His light” (from We Awaken, a prayer by Symeon the New Theologian).
The gardener holds your gaze; he doesn’t turn away. What about you? he asks. What about you?