Let’s flip to hymn 237 and sing a couple stanzas of “I Come to the Garden Alone.”
I’ve never sung that in a Sunday service, much less given it pride of place amid Easter. But it reflects John’s telling of this early morning, of Mary Magdalene who begins alone, who has some strange encounters, fetches friends and fellow followers of Jesus, and then again winds up alone in the garden after the others leave.
Certainly that first feels fitting for sunrise service. Though you may not have Mary’s tenacity to linger after the rest of the congregation has come and gone, the early, solitary aspect feels applicable. We’re not quite alone, but it is a small gathering. We brave the early hours—even if not while it was still dark like for Mary Magdalene. But I do believe braving it is the correct term for our early, lonely trip to this worship service. Though (unlike Mary) we come expecting resurrection, expecting life, still there’s the challenge of what that’s going to mean. Those difficult reflections can require courage and bravery to address how this story could possibly fit into our lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So this early, quiet worship service may feel somewhat like Mary’s coming to the garden alone.
I want to disagree with that opening line from the song, though, and also with the refrain. First, it’s vital to note that she didn’t—and you don’t—actually arrive alone. There are others. You have a congregation, a set of siblings here who abide with you in figuring out this faith. But let’s press beyond that. The song gets some of my point, even while not appreciating it: Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone if there were dewy roses there in the garden and the birds who hushed their singing. As we’re in the garden, our eyes also awaken to faith’s expanding horizons and expectations of sharing in this wide community.
For simple starters, we are community with the birds, who don’t need our preaching to know the good news because—far from hushed—they were singing their Alleluias while it was still dark, before the sun had risen. In the breadth of garden community, there are also bees. Even as 30,000 ladies have recently repopulated our hives, bees help share the good news—in the words of a 1600 year old Easter prayer—as God’s servants who provide the wax for the resurrection paschal candle flame in the darkness.
And for another sense of how good news spreads, we gather this morning with lilies and tulips and daffodils. Their color is the vibrancy of new life, proclaiming the resurrection to us. More, their sweet aroma is the fragrance of Christ. That phrase comes from 2nd Corinthians, a delightfully unusual passage which says “thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:14-16). Maybe as we worship with this Easter garden this morning, we have a sense of this scent, a notion of what the aroma is about. We can smell what Jesus smells like, smell what salvation means, smell new life.
But to ponder that differently, might it also be in the smell of cooking ham, which may be a specific Easter fragrance in your household or memory? Even though it meant the death of the pig, it could be a smell “from life to life,” of sustenance, of community, of giving ourselves for the sake of another’s wellbeing.
I don’t want to force that to make the pig seem overly generous; after all, it didn’t have much choice. But to draw the connection for us, I suspect some of our aroma of Christ would have to smell like sweat, like BO, like we’ve been hard at work, toiling, serving and giving ourselves to each other for each other. We may not come out smelling like roses, but that would have to embody how Christ would smell.
You are sent with Christ’s scent. Our relationship with Jesus, as Jim Wallis reminds, is personal but not private. If we tarry alone with Jesus, we’re missing the point of our faith and the spread of new life. We don’t come to or remain in the garden alone, but always join in the ever-expanding triumphal procession, bearing the aroma of life from God to every place.
On the other hand, the song seems to overlook another aspect of loneliness. The refrain went “and he walks with me, and he talks with me…” But that was only very briefly true for Mary Magdalene. She couldn’t claim “the joy we share as we tarry there” since she barely had a chance to identify Jesus with her before he said “don’t hold onto me” and then was again gone.
That is harder still for us arriving this morning. We don’t get to see him to believe it. He neither walks with you nor talks with you in any tangible way. What we have largely is feeling of absence. That fits with actual Mary more than the version from the song. This reading is most embodied in her uncertain tears. Even when surrounded by angels and gardeners and flowers and birds, her grief is isolating. Nobody knows the troubles and sorrows you’ve seen. They are your own.
But that isolation, while a hard reality, is the past struggle and death of Good Friday. A dead end. Today, the resurrection moves us beyond grief and Jesus moves to new beginnings. Yet that’s not easy; in the culminating moment of this Holy Week’s theme of “God’s passion to liberate the oppressed,” this still involves risk, the risk of new life. There is risk since we often define ourselves by the old ways, by what we lost. Mary was a follower of Jesus, but could follow him no longer. She knew traditions and liturgies for funerals, had practices of how to mourn the dead. But she also had to relinquish those as she was sent with new life. She is sent to see the community around her in the instruction to take the message to her fellow disciples. It may be spoken in tears, but also is part of the practice of breaking through them.
The riskiest part of this freeing proclamation is almost certainly that we still feel defined and confined by death, isolated from God. The resurrection can hardly seem to apply to us when we still know way too much of the old life and have far too few glimmers of new.
But breaking out of that deadly isolation, the good news confronts us with another gardening metaphor of abundance: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single [isolated, lonely] grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Bursting with Jesus from cold, dark, confines we join together: “Now the green blade rises! Love is come again!”