She might have waited until daybreak. If dawn’s new light had been peeking over the horizon, it would have been easier for Mary Magdalene to see the path beneath her feet. And when Mary arrived at the tomb, the first rays of sunshine would have warmed away some of the overnight chill.
But the story tells us Mary set out while it was still dark. Maybe she wanted to make sure she would be alone so she left home knowing most people were still asleep. Perhaps she wanted to guarantee some peace and quiet for herself after the relentless noise of the previous days…the crowds who shouted for Jesus to be crucified in Pilate’s courtyard…the loud footsteps of the soldiers marching Jesus through the city streets with a cross on his back…and the loud tears Mary shed along with the other women as she kept vigil near the foot of the cross.
Or possibly the explanation for Mary’s sojourn while it was still dark was more straightforward…she simply couldn’t sleep. Which would be understandable to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. Instead of lying there for hours with mind racing and swollen eyes staring at lonely walls, why not try to rise out of bed and get dressed and put one foot in front of the other…?
For Mary Magdalene, it was the day after the day after. On Friday, Jesus died an agonizing death on the cross. On Saturday Jesus was laid to rest in an empty tomb. And now it was Sunday. For Mary, a day for remembering and mourning and paying last respects.
The sun shone brightly by the time Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. Peter and the Beloved Disciple had already come and gone and Mary mustered up enough emotional fortitude to peer inside and see the body of her Lord. When Mary noticed that the tomb was empty, save for two angels dressed in white, her disorientation and distress increased. It was bad enough Jesus died. The fact that his body was no longer there added insult to her injury. All of a sudden, it looked and felt to Mary as though there would be no closure.
As Mary turned away from the entrance to the tomb she saw a man standing in front of her. And then the Gospel of John lets us in on a fascinating detail. Mary mistook the man for the gardener. Of all the assumptions she could have made about the man’s identity, of all the potential guesses that might have crossed her mind, Mary made one clear presumption.
I’ve never paid much attention to those six words in the fifteenth verse of John’s Easter story…”supposing him to be the gardener.” Yet there had to have been something about the way this man looked that indicated “gardener” to Mary Magdalene. And if the story tells us that Mary initially thought she saw a gardener in front of her, all the things we’ve ever assumed about the appearance of the Risen Christ are untrue.
Think about it for a moment. The pictures you and I have typically seen of the Risen Christ depict him more like a wingless angel than a human gardener. He’s usually dressed in bright white, sometimes with a shiny halo hovering above his head. He always looks impeccable and clean cut, like he spent the morning at the nearest spa. Every hair groomed in place, every stitch of clothing without a wrinkle and tucked in neatly, the Risen Christ has a sweet and gentle smile on his face. In your imagination, you can catch a whiff of his new Savior smell.
But Mary figured he was the gardener. And if you know any gardeners in your life, they don’t look like the pristine Risen Christ I’ve just described. Really good gardeners, like a few we have right here in this congregation, aren’t afraid to get dirty. They don’t usually wear white clothing, unless they own something old and worn or they have strong bleach and a really good washing machine. When necessary they use shovels and trowels and wheelbarrows and they wear a pair of good gloves. Yet when it comes right down to it, successful gardeners know that bare hands make the best gardening tools.
Gardeners dig dirt and scoop dirt and press dirt down with their hands. They weed with their hands and plant with their hands and water with their hands and if their fingernails wind up dirty, it’s all a part of the process…
So if the Risen Christ really looked like a gardener, it stands to reason he had dirt and dust on his clothes. Never mind looking like a pure, unblemished angel, the Risen Christ looked like he’d been hard at work. Hair out of place? Probably. His robe or his tunic wrinkled and a little off kilter? Safe bet. Some dirt under his fingernails? I’m pretty sure.
Chances are good the Risen Christ wasn’t particularly impressive. At least not in a churchy sense. He certainly didn’t resemble all of us dressed up in our finest Easter outfits and looking fancy and put together. The whole thing makes you wonder if Christians down through the years have tried to clean up the Risen Christ in order to make him presentable for Easter company. God knows we wouldn’t want to offend anybody with the truth.
In the end, however, the truth is resurrection never feels like being made clean and pious and fully sanitized the way those Easter pictures portray it. God’s Easter objective…the reason why God raised Jesus Christ from the dead…is not to make you and me nice. Or to make us spiffy. Or even to make us good. God’s primary goal in the resurrection is to make all things and all people new.
And new isn’t the same as nice or spiffy or good. New definitely isn’t perfect. In truth, new is often just the opposite. New is messy and confusing and more than a bit out of control.
New looks like an alcoholic on the day he or she stops drinking or an addict on the day he or she resolves to stop using and get clean for the first time in years. Choosing to live a sober life is messy and it’s disorienting and it’s often out of control. But newly recovering symbolizes the promise of claiming hope and starting over again.
New looks like someone who has just divorced their spouse at the end of a marriage. It’s about coming to terms with the loneliness and taking a hard look at old patterns that don’t work anymore and struggling to claim a different identity apart from the one we knew and practiced so well. Divorce is frightening and it’s fragile and it’s uncomfortable. But newly single also represents the possibility of self-confidence and expectation, coupled with an openness to surprising relationships in store down the road.
New looks like reconciliation with a family member or a friend who does not actually deserve it. It’s about putting aside long held grudges. It’s about letting go of keeping score and tightly embraced wrongs. It’s about holding a mirror up in front of ourselves and noticing the log in our own eyes instead of fixating on the splinter in everyone else’s eyes. New is about pardon and forgiveness and vulnerability and the willingness to take a short term risk in search of a long term reconciliation.
New looks like every time you and I manage to admit we are wrong and every time we manage not to harp on the fact that we are right. New looks like every second chance and every fresh start and every opportunity we’ve ever been given to let go of what we thought we couldn’t live without…and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming and sometimes new is the thing we never even hoped for. Yet new winds up being the very thing we needed all the way along…
I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that Mary Magdalene assumed the Risen Christ was the gardener. I love the idea that the God of Easter appears to us as a Risen Savior with dust on his clothes and hair out of place and dirt under his fingernails.
If the Risen Christ looks like a gardener, it says something powerful about who God is and what God’s love means for us on this Easter Sunday and always. It means that God keeps reaching down into the dirt and dust of humanity. It means that God keeps digging through the dirt of our own human sinfulness and violence and prejudice. It means that God continues sifting through the holes we dig for ourselves through our selfishness and our arrogance and our addictions and our indifference…always ready to plant new seeds.
The Risen Christ promises to keep on entering into our chaotic lives, loving you and me through the mess. Loving us so much and so deeply that you and I come back to life…over and over and over again.
Happy Resurrection day! Alleluia and Amen.