That Stealthy Gardener
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”;
and she told them that he had said these things to her. —John 20:18
Thomas Lynch is an undertaker in a small Michigan town, but also an extremely accomplished essayist and poet. His most famous book is called The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Mr. Lynch was the inspiration behind that old HBO show called Six Feet Under.
Mr. Lynch complains about the cultural shift in recent years from funerals to memorial services. The difference, you understand, is that a memorial service is a funeral without a body. Well, of course, an undertaker would complain about that: funerals are more expensive; it’s cheaper if you don’t have to worry about the body.
But, Mr. Lynch says there’s more to it than that. Mr. Lynch says there’s a theological and psychological point to be made, a theological and psychological diminishment in this cultural shift in which we no longer want to be bothered with the physical remains of those we’ve loved and lost. That body was, is, your husband, your wife, your mother, your son. In Christian theology, we don’t just have bodies, we are bodies. When my body dies, I die; there is no disembodied remainder left over after the death. Christianity has no “just a shell” theory of the human body, and to acknowledge the body at death, says Mortician Lynch, is to honor what we have lost.
In his Milford, Michigan, funeral home, Mr. Lynch has a closet-full of ashes that have never been claimed by the dead person’s survivors. “Just have her cremated,” they say with instructions phoned in from Scottsdale or Fort Lauderdale. They never show up to claim what is left of the one they loved.
From precisely that cultural context, then, we might be a little baffled by John’s resurrection story, where Jesus’ mangled corpse proves precious to those who remain behind. Joseph, that caring rich man from Arimathea, and Nicodemus, that respected lawyer who’d furtively visited Jesus under cover of night, pry those iron spikes from his hands and feet with a crow-bar, they dig these embedded thorns from his bloody brow, they unstick his scourged back from that abrasive wood, and dress his body, John tells us, with one hundred pounds of spices and perfumes and preservatives. One hundred pounds, almost as much as the corpse itself.
There’s a garden next to Golgotha, a garden with a cave, a cave with a mouth about four feet across and three feet high, little niches, carved cavities, in the cave’s walls, little niches equipped with a waist-high shelf of rock, little shelves just big enough to lie down on. In the entrance to the cave, there’s a stone slab, shaped like a poker chip or a silver dollar, set into a stone runner in the earth beneath just like the sliding glass door out to your deck. It weighs a ton. Literally.
Three days after Joseph and Nicodemus lovingly inter the remains of their friend, after the Sabbath, the first day of the week, a Sunday, Mary Magdalene comes early, while it is still dark, to pay her respects to what is left of the one she so loved.
John is the only Gospel who tells us that one woman alone came to Jesus’ grave. Matthew tells us there were two and Mark tells us there were three and Luke tells us there were many, but only John has Mary Magdalene come alone.
Now, remember, this is Jerusalem at Festival Time; there are drunken revelers prowling the streets and Roman soldiers far from home patrolling the execution site, and while Jerusalem at Passover is probably not quite New Orleans at Mardi Gras, it still is just not safe for a woman alone to be traveling the streets at 4:00 in the morning; she must really have wanted to be with that body.
Do you remember those ashes in Mr. Lynch’s closet? One time the sister of a dead woman came to claim the ashes, which had been abandoned by her distant and dissolute children. She held that box of ashes in her hands as if it were the host from Holy Communion. Then she walked them out to the car and beeped open the trunk and placed them safely there. Then she got behind the wheel and started the engine. Then she thought better of it, turned the engine off, beeped open the trunk, and took the ashes and put them in the back seat. Then she thought again and took the ashes and put them in the passenger seat. Then she fastened the seat belt around the ashes. And she was off. Once in a while we revert to a first-century respect for the body.
Mary Magdalene. Remember her? The Bible doesn’t tell us much about her. In fact, the Bible tells us so little about her that over the centuries tradition has tried to fill in the gaps with a vivid portrait of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, but this reading comes from a mistaken conflation of three different women in the New Testament record and the overactive imaginations of sex-starved monks.
All the Bible really tells us is that she was rich and helped underwrite Jesus’ always cash-poor ministry from her personal bank account, and that before she’d met Jesus she’d been wrestling with seven personal demons. What does that mean? Depression, hallucination, paranoia, schizophrenia, alcohol, opium, witchcraft? That’s seven. My modest contribution to the huge pile of groundless speculation.
In any case, she met Jesus and whatever was broken about her was healed. Martin Scorsese says she looked like Barbara Hershey with tattoos, and Andrew Lloyd Webber tells us she didn’t know how to love him, but she did, she really did know how to love him, because she was there with her checkbook when he preached the length and breadth of the Palestinian countryside, and she was there at Golgotha when they nailed him to that cross, and she was there in that garden looking for him even after he was dead. In the dark. By herself. The only one.
She stands there next to that open grave weeping over her misplaced treasure, his mutilated corpse. She assumes the worst. Well, you would too. Stumble across an open, empty grave and your first thought is not resurrection but poaching, plunder, pillage, and sack.
Resurrectionists, they call the body snatchers. Resurrection men. They make it look as if the dead have gotten up and walked away. But wait! It can’t be body snatchers, because the grave clothes are still there in the grave. Grave-robbers wouldn’t leave the grave clothes behind; that’s what they came for; grave-robbers would take the clothes and leave the body. What good is a dead body without the clothes; there was no market for cadavers in first-century Jerusalem, no medical schools needing corpses for anatomy class.
What’s more, there are two men dressed in white sitting there where the dead Jesus is supposed to be. John tells us that they’re angels, but maybe Mary doesn’t know that; she’s wrestled with demons but she’s never spoken with angels. “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him,” she tells them.
But she doesn’t even wait for a response, because just then, out of the corner of her eye, she sees a figure standing there in the garden outside the cave, someone whose features she can’t quite make out as a cresting sun casts only the faintest blush over the trees in that garden. “Woman, why are you weeping?” he says to her.
And then this wonderful line: “Supposing him to be the gardener…” He’d been a carpenter, of course, blue-collar, jeans and work boots, he always looked just like a carpenter, and carpenters dress just like gardeners, and this was a garden, so what else would you be looking for?
“Supposing him to the be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and though it be ten miles, I will heft his corpse upon my shoulder and haul him back where he belongs myself. Just watch me!’”
And then a quiet poignance too good not to be true. He speaks a single word, and life is wrested from death’s ruthless grip. He speaks her name. Nothing more. She’s heard it a thousand times, a music she dreams.
Has it ever happened to you? Has someone you once loved—now far away or long gone from your life, maybe dead, maybe on the other side of the world, maybe utterly indifferent to your existence—returned unexpectedly to speak that single word, your name?
Did he march off to war in Europe or Vietnam or Baghdad 18, 24, 36 months before, and then did he walk into your kitchen and say “Mary!”?
Did she walk out of your life for what you thought would be forever but then three years later reappear at the coffee shop or one of your old haunts and sit down next to you and speak your name, just your name?
Was there a child of yours so angry with you he promised never to speak to you again, and that was five years ago and you don’t even know where he lives, and then did the phone ring, collect call from Spokane, and did you hear “Mom!”?
Did she wake from anesthesia after death-defying surgery to squeeze your hand and speak your name?
He speaks her name. Just her name. And there is resurrection. “Rabbi,” she says, as she collapses at his feet with more tears, this time for joy. As Craig Barnes puts it, “All we know for sure is that a risen Savior is on the loose. And he knows our names.”
Cynthia Hurd was one of the nine members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston who were gunned down by Dylan Roof in June, 2015. She was three weeks shy of her 55th birthday, which she was looking forward to, because she thought of it as her “double nickel.” Mother Emmanuel’s sanctuary seats 2,500 people. At Cynthia’s funeral on June 27, 2015, every seat was filled; 150 more people were ushered to Second Presbyterian Church down the block to watch a live stream. Jesse Jackson was there. Nikki Haley was there. The mayor of Charleston, a U. S. Congressman, a U. S. Senator. The Bishop of the AME Church was there. At the cemetery, they released nine white doves into the heavens.
Cynthia had been a librarian in South Carolina public libraries and at the College of Charleston for over 30 years. She had no children of her own, so she became mother to all the children she lent books to for 30 years.
At Dylan Roof’s Federal trial in Charleston this past January, Cynthia’s brother, Melvin Graham testified. He looked straight at Dylan Roof, who would not look back, and said, “You tried to kill my sister, but you failed.” And then Melvin rattled off the ways she lives on: The Cynthia Graham Hurd Memorial Scholarship, University of South Carolina; the Cynthia Graham Hurd St. Andrews Regional Library, Charleston; the Cynthia Graham Hurd Memorial Scholarship, College of Charleston. He named about a dozen such tributes, and said, “And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.” All Dylan Roof had done to Cynthia Hurd was to immortalize her.
The last time Easter fell on April 16 was 2006. Before that, it was 1995. But before that, you have to go back to 1933. The next April 16 Easter will be in 11 years—2028. These occurrences are sporadic—sometimes you can go decades without seeing an April 16 Easter—but on average, Easter falls on April 16 about once every 20 years. It’s happened eight times in the last 150 years.
Easter fell on April 16 in 1865. General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, Palm Sunday. On April 14, Good Friday—John Wilkes Booth tried to decapitate the Federal Government and exterminate freedom, but it did not work; all he did was to stiffen the American determination that “these dead shall not have died in vain, [and] that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom.” When President Lincoln died on Silent Saturday, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, standing at his bedside, said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
You cannot kill Jesus. You cannot kill freedom. You cannot kill goodness. Trying to kill Jesus is like blowing on a dandelion—you just send it to the ends of the earth. If you try to kill Jesus, his disciples will just spread out to the ends of the earth preaching the Good News and baptizing more disciples. If you try to kill Cynthia Hurd, her name goes up on buildings and on scholarships all over the South. If you try to kill the Great Emancipator, they will just build the most visited and beloved memorial throughout the entire earth.
Have you not met that stealthy gardener along the path of your life, perhaps in the dark, perhaps next to a skull-shaped heap of rocks called Golgotha? Have you not heard hints and guesses, whispers and intimations, of resurrection?
The tomb is empty, the body is gone, Christ is alive. There’s a stealthy gardener on the loose. And he knows our names.
Thomas Lynch, unpublished comment from “A Conversation with James VandenBosch,” from the Festival of Faith and Writing, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, April 24, 2004.
Lynch, “Conversation with VandenBosch.”
Craig Barnes, “Savior at Large,” The Christian Century, March 13, 2002.
David Perlmutt, “Cynthia Hurd Funeral Delivers a Message of Hope and Mark on History,” The Charlotte Observer, June 27, 2015.
Jelani Cobb, “Inside the Trial of Dylan Roof,” The New Yorker, February 6, 2017, pp. 20-26.