By Christopher Yoder
On Easter Monday, my father and I did battle with a Virginia creeper. The vine had insinuated itself in the great holly hedge that runs the whole length of the southern end of my backyard, some seventy feet. The vine covered the same length several times over, running back and forth. It must have been there for some time. Great lengths of the vine were as thick as my thumb, some nearly as thick as my wrist. We would pull up ten feet of vine and feel that we had accomplished something—only to discover another twenty running in the opposite direction. The vine ran back and forth, in layers upon layers upon buried layers. It had strangled one of the holly bushes to death. It was our enemy. In the end, the vine’s casualties filled a dozen 30-gallon bags. They’re still setting in the garage, waiting for bulky trash day; I would rather burn the cursed things and see them go up in flame. We won the battle, but the war will go on.
And there are other battle fronts. Chickweed and dandelions and crabgrass are invading the front lawn. (I’ve resorted to chemical warfare against them.) And the peonies have powdery mildew, and a rainstorm floated the mulch out of the flowerbeds in the back yard twice in one week. I love yardwork—there are few things I do that are so satisfying—but it does bring out “the sweat of your face” (Genesis 3:19).
I’ve been thinking of yardwork in relation to the spiritual life. Thinking about that Virginia creeper as a picture of sin and its effect on the soul. About how it extends deeper and more extensively than we can manage. “Our sins are stronger than we are” (Psalm 65:3)—we cannot uproot them, no matter how hard we try. Thinking, too, about why it is that I will go to such lengths to pull out a vine from my hedge and weeds from my lawn, and yet not exert the same effort against the world or the flesh or the devil. Thinking also about how beautiful the peonies are that adorn nearly every room in our house these days.
Thinking of these things, I came across an Easter sermon by Lancelot Andrewes in which he meditates on the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene as a gardener (see John 20:1–18). My colleague, Father John Henry Marlin, shared it at staff devotions during Holy Week, and it keeps coming back to me. It is perfectly lovely. Here is the relevant section for your delectation as we conclude our Eastertide celebrations (I have modernized the spelling and changed some of the formatting):
[…] Christ she saw, but, knew Him not.
Not only not knew Him, but misknew Him, took Him for the Gardener. Tears, will dim the sight, and it was not yet scarce day, and she, seeing one, and not knowing what any one should make in the ground so early, but he who dressed it, she might well mistake. But it was more than so: Her eyes were not holden only, that she did not know Him [Luke 24:16], but over and beside, He did appear ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ [“in another form”, see Mark 16:12] in some such shape as might resemble the Gardener, whom she took Him for.
Proper enough it was, it fitted well the time and place (this person). The time, It was the Spring; the place, It was a garden (that place is most in request at that time) for that place and time, a Gardener doth well.
Of which her so taking Him, Saint Gregory saith well, Profectò errando non erravit [“Truly, in erring, she did not err.” Translation by John Campbell]. She did not mistake in taking Him for a Gardener: though she might seem to err, in some sense, yet in some other she was in the right. For in a sense, and a good sense, Christ may well be said to be a Gardener, and indeed is one. For, our rule is, Christ, as He appears, so He is, ever: No false semblance in Him.
- A Gardener He is then. The first, the fairest garden that ever was (Paradise), He was the Gardener, it was of His planting. So, a Gardener.
- And ever since it is He that (as God) makes all our gardens green, sends us yearly the Spring, and all the herbs and flowers we then gather; and neither Paul with his planting, nor Apollos with his watering, could do any good without Him [cf. 1 Cor. 3:6]. So a Gardener in that sense.
- But not in that alone; But He it is who gardens our souls too, and makes them, as the Prophet saith, Like awell watered garden [Jer. 31:12], weeds out of them whatsoever is noisome or unsavoury, sows and plants them with true roots and seeds of righteousness, waters them with the dew of His grace, and makes them bring forth fruit to eternal life.
But it is none of all these, but besides all these, nay over and above all these, this day (if ever) most properly He was a Gardener. Was one, and so after a more peculiar manner, might take this likeness on Him. Christ rising was indeed a Gardener, and that a strange one, who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day, as the like was never seen before, a dead body, to shoot forth alive out of the grave.
I ask, was He so this day alone? No, but this profession of His, this day begun, He will follow to the end. For, He it is, that by virtue of this morning’s act, shall garden our bodies, too: turn all our graves into garden plots: Yea, will one day turn land and Sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them, as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.
Long before, did Isaiah see this and sing of it, in his song [Isaiah 26:19] resembling the Resurrection to a Spring garden.Awake and sing, saith he, ye that dwell for a time are as it were sown in the dust, for His dew will be as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall shoot forth her dead. So then: He appeared, no other than He was: A Gardener He was, not in show alone, but opere & veritate [“in deed and in truth,” see 1 Jn. 3:18], and so came in His own likeness. […] (Lancelot Andrews, “A Sermon Preached at White-hall, on Easter day the 16. of April. 1620,” in Peter McCullough, ed., Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures (Oxford, 2005), pp. 236–7.)
“Christ may well be said to be a Gardener, and indeed is one.” The Lord’s Name be praised.