In John’s account of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalen mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Or perhaps it is not a mistake or not just a mistake but also a poetic truth. In any event, John’s Gospel makes clear: the Resurrection takes place in a garden!
(For the feminist significance of horticulture, I refer you to Carol Christ’s recent post on this site: Women and Weeding, the first 10,000 years .)
Many prominent (male) theologians, historians, anthropologists, and psychoanalysts among them James Frazer, Jung, and C.S. Lewis made the case for and/or against (in Lewis’ case) Jesus being another dying rising god of vegetation with Christianity borrowing imagery and ritual from earlier or even contemporary cults. The argument against insists that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is historical, redemptive, and unique. From a tour of Bloglandia, the debate pro and con appears to continue unabated. I say better to pull weeds (if you are lucky enough to have a garden) than pontificate.
We moved last autumn to a new home with a garden I glimpsed only in its maturity. After a long hard winter, with the old crusty snow beginning to recede, the yard looks as dead as it can, not only dead but as if it had been through an ordeal, as it has. A casual glance reveals no life at all. Then suddenly rising through a clump of frozen wet leaves, I see snowdrops, daffodil shoots, and I am stirred to action, raking, pruning dead wood, cutting dry dead stalks down to the ground. Every year I am awed by the familiar, natural miracle of life emerging from death. Why wouldn’t all the peoples (and other life forms) of this earth hold sacred the mysteries of life, death, and resurrection?
For many people today and certainly for all of our ancestors, the return of vegetation—and of new animal life, milk and eggs—literally brings salvation from death by starvation or malnutrition. I wonder if the tradition of fasting for Lent had a practical as well as spiritual meaning. The stores from the last harvest would be running low and early crops and new wild or domesticated greens still not yet risen. Fasting or eating sparely would have been a necessity.
It is not only gods that rise from death to bring new life. Many goddesses, Persephone and Inanna among them, make the descent to the underworld and return transformed. Women and/or goddesses also play an active role in resurrecting the god. Isis, for example, resurrects Osiris by re-membering him. All four of the Christian Gospels feature women as the first witnesses of the Resurrection. (In my novel The Passion of Mary Magdalen, I take it a step further, with Maeve, the Celtic Magdalen, spending the night inside the tomb and participating in the mystery of Resurrection and apotheosis.)
I believe the power of the Jesus’s story is enhanced not diminished by seeing many layers of meaning. The return of vegetation and of fertility in the animal world means food—and food to share, something Jesus is famous for. He was decried for eating with outcasts. His central ritual is a meal. His disciples recognized him in the breaking of bread. And in one of my favorite Resurrection stories, he tells his disciples where to cast the nets and then invites them to a fish fry on the beach!
Whoever we are, whatever we believe, we all need to eat. We need to love, tend, defend—and celebrate!— the miraculously generous and regenerative earth that feeds us and all life. Therefore let us keep the feast and share the feast. Alleluia!
Jesus the ground
In the Creed it says he descended into Hell,
Some call it the harrowing of Hell.
I remember the summer I worked on a farm
driving the tractor, harrowing the rough-ploughed fields
dragging a big comb through the earth,
breaking up the clumps, softening it for the seeds.
Some say Jesus went down and raised the righteous dead,
led them forth from the shadowy regions of Sheol.
What if when he harrowed hell he became the earth,
rich and open and fertile, the ground for the grain,
for the vine, what if we literally take his body
and turn it into bread and wine.
What if Jesus so loved the earth
he gave his only begotten body to the ground.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. The above poem will be published in her forthcoming collection So Ecstasy Can Find You.
17 thoughts on “Resurrection Garden, Resurrection Feast by Elizabeth Cunningham”
Thank you for this beautiful post that brings together so many strands of life, theology, and traditions. Yesterday the first herb in my garden – bloodroot – blossomed. I didn’t think too much about it before, but now it seems a perfect symbol of this Easter weekend.
A beautiful post to wake up to – thank you Elizabeth!
Thank you Carolyn and Xochitl! I wrote the post a couple of weeks ago. Now the resurrection of the garden is in full amazing swing. Outside this morning a phrase came into my mind. “If you want to save the world, savor it.” Wishing everyone at FAR joy of the resurrection!
Thank you Elizabeth, and Carol (I enjoyed re-reading your post). I’m fortunate to also have a garden that is in “full swing” right now. Well, the heather and rhodos are, along with the weeds. Some veggie seeds are in the ground too. May the gardens in our lives flourish and bear fruit and give delight in beauty.
Elizabeth, I was searching online for images of Mary of Magdala and your photo popped up in google! :-)
Thank you, Barbara! Happy gardening. And thanks for that intriguing tidbit of information!
It is amazing to me that a debate continues about whether the story of Jesus Christ is but the latest iteration of the death and rebirth of the vegetation god that is prominent in just about every cultural mythos of the ancient world. But then again, denial is a useful defense mechanism for staying unconscious.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for the apt analogy of the miracle of the garden resurrection that we marvel at every spring. I have been amazed at the sight of a small tree that seems to have suddenly grown from nothing that is providing shade for a corner of my patio deck (it was never there before this year!).
I have no problem seeing Jesus as the sacrificed vegetation god and Mary Magdalen as the lover who inspires and witnesses the resurrection in her role as Fertility and Earth Goddess. Today I celebrate the resurrection of earth-based consciousness and the restoration of balance between the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine.
Thank you! So be it and blessed bees!
Brava! But then, you’re the best Goddess novelist on the planet, so brava again for writing about a two-way apotheosis between Jesus and the earth. I remember seeing those brave little plants growing up through the snow.
Thank you, Barbara. Yes, new life is brave and amazing!
I love the earth and I intend to give my body back to the ground. I feel no need for life after death and I don’t understand why western culture fixated on not accepting a life that ends in death…
The refusal to accept death and to embrace the earth does seem at the heart of a lot of the conundrums western culture has created. I confess I like the idea of my body being given to the birds as in some eastern cultures. They are of the earth too as is the air we breathe.
I intend to give my body back to the Earth, since She gave me everything (at least everything material) that I’ve ever had. Becoming one with the Earth feels right to me, just as caring for my biological mother in her old age feels right.
Oh, yes, there is a very practical side to the Lenten fast. No meat– so that the kids and lambs and calves can get a start on growing. (And in Albania and Greece the Easter Feast is often a lamb). No eggs, so that the chickens and ducks and geese can hatch a brood. No butter, so that the first weeks of lactation will go to the sucklings. After Easter, eggs and milk and fowl and greenstuff– but waiting for the grain until late summer (at least in northern Europe).
Thanks for more information about food and how it is cared for! Wishing you a joyous feast!