In the garden

It seems to me one of the very big divides that has been exposed by the times we are living in – these days of lockdown as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic – is that there is a section of the population who have access to a garden and a lot of people who simply don’t.  One of the joys of living in London is the sheer number of parks and public squares that we can enjoy.  These are places where people meet and gather and exercise, the places where children run around with their dogs, where you can sit alongside a stretch of water and feed the wildfowl, the places where you can admire the planting of flowers and breathe fresh air.  The open spaces are part of what makes it possible to live in London, the parks, as well as all the other public places that people can enjoy, the galleries and museums, the shops, and pubs and bars and restaurants.  London is the living room for lots and lots of people who will sleep in their studio flat but never envisaged being locked down in it.  It must be tough when we know that we should stay in to ‘stay home, protect the NHS and save lives’ but feeling that the walls are closing in on us.

Italian School; Noli me tangere

‘Noli me tangere’

The disciples were in lockdown.  They were in the Upper Room for fear, as St John constantly reminds us, of what lay outside.  They sat there waiting, but unclear of how long that wait would be.  But as dawn breaks Mary Magdalene leaves the safety of the room and steps outside.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. (John 20.1)

She makes her way to the garden where, just a few hours earlier, they had buried the dead body of Jesus, hurriedly.  Now she goes to complete the task and to weep, to be alone, but in the fresh dawn air, out of the stifling atmosphere of the locked room.

Whatever is true about Mary Magdalene, and a great deal is loaded on to her by the tradition, I always think that there is something strong and courageous about her.  There has to be a reason why she was chosen to be the ‘Apostle of the Apostles’, the first witness to the resurrection.  She must have had qualities that the others simply didn’t display.  So, regardless of all the conventions of the day, it is a woman, this woman who is chosen to be the principle messenger to the waiting, locked-down world of what God had done for humanity.  History shows us that she, with all her sisters were subsequently sidelined by a male, patriarchal church and that it would take two millennia for the voice from the garden to be heard. But we hear her voice today.

‘I have seen the Lord’ (John 20.18)

In what have become regular visits for me to the Holy Land I have been trying to discover new places, the ‘Hidden and Holy’ as I have been calling them.  Obviously, they aren’t new and I haven’t discovered them.  But they are places that are new to me and, I suspect, less often visited by busy pilgrims.  One such place is St Jacob’s Orthodox Cathedral. It is set on the courtyard that is in front of the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  As you are looking at the entrance, the doorway to the Cathedral is on your left.

To be honest I hadn’t noticed the door until recently and I don’t know what the opening hours are.  But on the last two occasions it has been open and I have gone in.  What is amazing is that as you enter you come first to an ‘outside’ sanctuary.  The iconostasis is covered but the rest of the space is open to the elements.

Outside sanctuary

The beautiful ‘outside’ sanctuary

There are some doors which then take you to the ‘inner’ sanctuary, a lovely space, one or two people there, saying their prayers, an ancient font, lovely icons.

Inner sanctuary

The ‘inner’ sanctuary

But what is very special is the shrine that is in the outside sanctuary.  It stands where the sun can shine on it and the rain can fall upon it.  It stands on the spot where Mary met the gardener, met Jesus.  We are just a few meters away from the Edicule which enshrines Christ’s tomb.  Where St Jacob’s now stands was in that same garden, just a stone’s throw away where Mary wept and was found by the stranger who called her by name.  I found the place deeply powerful.


The place of encounter

Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in a garden where God walked alongside them – and then, through sin, they were barred from it.  An angel with a flaming sword stood at the entrance and none could enter.  Jesus is raised to new life in another garden; another angel is there with a caring question, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ (John 20.13) and an invitation to see.  Mary is in the life-giving place where the one who has set free from her sins, encounters her and names her.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). (John 20.15-16)

This year we are locked out of our churches as we are locked down in our homes.  But in those moments when you can emerge, get out, breathe fresh air, find that ‘garden’ space and meet the Lord there.  As the poet Dorothy Frances Gurney wrote

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

May we too meet the Lord and hear his voice, naming us, in the garden of his delight.

Jesus, risen Lord,
meet us where we are,
name us and bless us.

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