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.