Jesus the Gardener


In1638 Rembrandt painted the scene we just heard described in the Gospel according to St. John.  Conventional artistic renderings of this scene depict that climactic moment when Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, who has just called her by name, and she rushes over to him to embrace him, which he will not allow.  Later in his career Rembrandt would turn his hand to that more conventional rendering, too.  But in his earlier version of the scene, Mary is kneeling at the top of a set of steps that lead to the open and empty tomb.  Before her is the jar in which she has carried the spices.  The two angels sit casually inside the dark, cave-like tomb.

Jesus is right there in the painting, but the artist provides a good explanation for why Mary Magdalene could have mistaken him for the gardener: for although he is bathed in a warm light rising over the distant towers of the Jerusalem Temple, he is, in fact, dressed like a somewhat dandy Renaissance gardener.  He is clad in a white robe, carrying a spade in his hand, he has a knife or pruning shears tucked into his belt, and he is wearing the sort of broad floppy hat worn by someone who spends long hours outside in the sun (although this particular broad-brimmed hat has a sort of J. Peterman vibe about it).  As Rembrandt paints him, Jesus looks, for all the world, like a gardener.

Remember that the conventional depiction of the scene conveys the clear message that Mary was mistaken; that Jesus is not the gardener.  But Rembrandt makes no such assertion; in fact his Jesus probably has dirt under his fingernails.

Now, St. John is very clear that Mary does not recognize Jesus for who he is, but John does not tell us whether or not Jesus was yet recognizable.  Perhaps John does not know.  Nor do we know whether or not there would ever have been a gardener in the vicinity of the tomb.  Not that it matters.  All that matters, really, is the possibility of a gardener.

If there was always the possibility of a gardener hanging around the empty tomb, one way of finding contemporary significance in this ancient resurrection scene is to conclude that there is always the chance of getting it wrong and mistaking Jesus for the gardener - this is the conventional way of conveying the encounter artistically - to focus on the error of mis-identification.

But there is another way of finding present meaning in this preserved ancient moment.  And that way of seeing things is to suppose that wherever there is the possibility of a gardener, so to speak, there is also the possibility of encountering the risen Jesus.  And Rembrandt seems to have imagined this possibility, the possibility that Mary is not entirely wrong about the gardener: that Jesus is both the gardener, and the risen Christ, too.

In order to imagine such a thing, you do not have to suggest that Jesus is some kind of body-snatcher, who might invade the body of an unsuspecting gardener, like some messianic parasite inhabiting its host’s body.  All you have to allow for is the passage of time; and to see that Rembrandt was not interested in painting an historical representation of that first Easter morning.  No, in a very real way, Rembrandt was painting an Easter morning for his own time, a contemporary Easter, with a contemporary Mary Magdalene, contemporary angels, and, of course a contemporary Jesus, who is right here with us even though he happens also to be a gardener.

More than once the Gospel writers tell us that the risen Jesus was not immediately recognizable to his followers after his resurrection.  It is not clear if this confusion is because Jesus has somehow substantially changed, or if he is in disguise for some reason, or if it is because such encounters are meant to be teaching moments, that require a moment of dawning, of recognition, or revelation.

The great value of Rembrandt’s suggestion is that he invites us to think not only of all the places where we have failed to see Jesus, but of all the people in whom we have failed to see Jesus.  And he suggests not merely that we should be on the lookout for Jesus, but that we should be on the lookout for gardeners, too, and for anyone in whom the risen Lord might be made manifest.  We should be on the lookout for gardeners, or  postmen, for shop clerks, and waitresses, maybe even for bankers and lawyers, for all I know, for migrant workers, and for the person who last asked you for a dollar on the street, and for any other neighbor whose presence we are generally inattentive to, but who might, all the same, bring us into the living presence of God, or, to put it another way, who might bring the living presence of God to us.

Those who are only looking for Jesus in someone who matches their own expectations of what he should look like are bound to have rare sightings of the Lord, if any at all.  But those who are on the lookout for gardeners - or for anyone who might bear the image of Christ to them - well, they are bound to have many encounters with the living Lord, who, after all, has constituted his Body in the world by calling many people together in his church.

Just yesterday I happened to be at a cemetery, standing beside an open grave, casting the first handfuls of dirt onto the casket.  Among the tearful mourners were some who might have been hoping Jesus was there with us, and some who never gave it a second thought.  Someone might have asked, “Why are you weeping?” as first the angels and then Jesus asked Mary Magdalene.  Maybe it should have been me.  How many resurrection appearances might have happened, if only we’d been prepared to see Jesus, maybe even in one of the guys who had a shovel in his hand, and who looked like not much more than a gardener.

I look at that painting by Rembrandt, and I find myself grateful that the artist was willing to consider that Mary was not mistaken, per se.  Rembrandt wants us, I think to consider that yes, Jesus was the gardener, and he might still be.  Which means that the risen Christ is standing by you and me, too, probably calling our names, and that nothing more is required to be in the presence of the living Christ than the possibility of a gardener - which is to say that nothing more is required at all.

In presenting to us the gardener, there in his goofy hat, Rembrandt presents also the suggestion of a more generous resurrection than we sometimes allow for, since there is ample room beneath the broad brim of Christ’s floppy gardening hat for anyone who cares to listen to Christ call her name.  

And since we hardly know what to look for any more, when we are looking for Jesus… and since many have given up looking altogether… but since we are all of us headed somehow toward the darkness of the grave…  I find it a matter of hope that there is every possibility that Jesus is right behind me, that he has been here all along, since there has always been the possibility of a gardener, that he is wearing a broad hat, so exaggerated that there is room for me and for you beneath its wide brim, that he knows us each by name, and that, yes, he is the gardener, too.  And with him comes the light.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 22, 2018 .

Herod's Feast


Reading the story of the beheading of John the Baptist puts me in mind of the image of a large painting in El Prado, in Madrid, some 9 feet high by 31 feet long, painted by the 17th century artist Bartholomeus Strobel the Younger.  It’s a busy, colorful painting of Herod’s feast, depicting no fewer than sixty individuals in lavish period court dress.  There are ruffles, lace, feathers, armor, embroidery, tiaras, ermine, turbans, bustles, capes, gowns, jewelry, plumes, sashes, boots and spurs among the extravagant wardrobes.  The head of nearly every woman is adorned, one way or another; and almost every single adult male in the painting is mustachioed, except the executioner.  A little research suggests that the painting is an allegory of Europe at some point during the Thirty Years War, by which is meant that the figures all represent actual historical figures of the time.  But an allegory is a particular kind of metaphor that is intended to convey meaning.  To me the painting looks like a PBS costume-drama waiting to happen.  But what meaning it is trying to convey is not necessarily obvious.

The Thirty Years War was ostensibly a religious war: a painfully long conflict during which the struggles of the European Reformation were fought and decided, as Protestant religion challenged the old order of Catholic rule.  But religious wars, like any other kind of wars, are always really about power.  And in the early 17th century, distinctions between religious and secular power were fuzzy, to say the least.

Strobel, who was himself a refugee of the war, created a painting that depicts contemporary Spanish, Dutch, English, Saxon, Roman, Polish, Florentine, Swedish, even Irish nobility and military figures, among others, and even one small dog, standing on its hind legs.  The image is broad and inclusive, as was the war.  But of course the scene is not a battle, but a banquet, demonstrating a canny insight about the reality of war for at least some segments of society.

Or, I should say, most of the painting depicts a banquet.  The far right hand side of the long work (maybe about one tenth of the length of the entire painting) shows the aftermath of John’s execution: his headless body fallen to the ground, and spilling a great pool of blood from his neck onto the floor, while the shirtless executioner smirks, and two faithful disciples of John’s resort to prayer.

Otherwise, the feast continues.  Guests are dining on pheasant and lobster; wine has been poured; bread is being shared; there is a table laden with fruits; in front of Herod there is a round plate with oysters laid out on the half-shell; an ornate chandelier lights the room; and there are smiles on many, many faces.  Salome and her mother grin through pursed lips as they present the head of John the Baptist to Herod, who, in an isolated gesture of distaste, has raised a hand, as if to push the platter away from him.  Otherwise, the party goes on.  It’s a wonder there isn’t any more dancing.

But of course the painting is only partly about the beheading of John the Baptist.  It is also about the unraveling of the religious order of things, and the tensions pulling at the various and complicated players in Europe.  It’s about the world order and its relationship to the Christian faith, and the competing versions of that faith.  It’s about the small and wealthy minority whose prejudices and squabbles, like their wars, affect the lives of everyone else.  It’s about a powerful man who is manipulated by his wife and his daughter, primarily because of his own vanity.  And, of course, it is about what becomes of the message (and of the messenger) of Christ in the halls of power, even among those who profess to call themselves Christians.  Which is to say that John’s message of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Lord is slaughtered, and presented on a platter for the mild amusement of the ruling class, its carcass left to bleed-out in the next room.

Now, this is an old painting, speaking of another age.  But we know our own long wars, do we not?  And it might be fair to say that the distinctions between religious and secular conflict have become fuzzy again.

It would be foolhardy of me to suggest who might populate such an allegorical painting in our own day and age.  And the costumes would be so much less interesting.  But it is possible to imagine a modern canvas on which are represented the vying forces of this world, gathered for a feast with pheasant and lobster and oysters, and champagne.  It is possible to imagine, I think, the head of John the Baptist being presented on a platter to some vain ruler, while the message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God dies in the next room, alongside John’s body.

When I think of this painting - like when I hear the story of the beheading of John the Baptist - I struggle to find much good news, at first.  For, what it appears to depict is the triumph of this world over the message of the coming kingdom of God, and the total banality of the process of killing that message.  The party never even has to stop.

In my imagination, however, I can see that the artist who created this enormous painting has actually overpainted an earlier work, which is a crucifixion scene, and which is the fulfillment of the promise of John the Baptist’s cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  In this other painting that, only in my imagination, exists beneath the heavy layers of paint on Strobel’s extraordinary painting, there is bloodshed, too.  But this blood is the Blood of Jesus, being poured out, so that his death might sanctify all other deaths, and bring an end to the power of death.  The rulers of the nations might well be depicted in this other painting, and they might well be laughing.  But they would not be able to see what we can see: that while they are receding into the darkness, light shines forth from the Cross of Christ.  John the Baptist might be featured in this imaginary painting, too, holding his head in his hand, in the manner that decapitated saints sometimes do in art.  And he would be smiling, for once, confident that his message had not died with him, could not die with him, will never die.

Such a painting does not exist, of course, beneath the fancy dresses and elaborate feast of Strobel’s great work.  To look at Strobel’s gigantic painting, is to see that the world he depicted has not disappeared, maybe it hasn’t even changed very much, although the characters and the costumes have changed.  The powerful still jostle with one another for power.  Religion remains a thing that is exceedingly difficult to do well and which, when done poorly, causes tremendous pain, conflict, and even violence.  The world order remains unsettled.  And the rich continue to bask in their wealth; the party never even has to stop.  And how easy it would be to find a stand-in for John the Baptist: a righteous victim to the vanities of the world.

But the Good News that is absent from this scene is precisely the truth that killing John could not prevent the Savior from coming.   Chopping his head off, could not silence the power of repentance to bring sinners into a righteous relationship with God.  Spilling John’s blood, could not deprive the Blood of Jesus of its power to bring salvation to the whole world.

What we hear of today in the Gospel is the fruitless foolishness of the powers of this world who believe that Christ does not matter, and that he has not already won the victory.  What we see is how foolish they look, and how wrong they are, and how distasteful is their feasting, and how fleeting, like the fashions they wear, is the power they think they wield.  For, sooner or later, the party will come to an end - history tells us that it always does - and some new grandees will populate the painting for another generation.

But you and I, will search every canvas, for evidence that it has been overpainted.  And somewhere we will find the Cross, and the Blood that saved us.  Somewhere we will find an Altar, or a Calvary, and the only feast laid out will be the feast of sincerity and truth, in which righteousness and peace have kissed each other: the feast of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and his Blood.

And it won’t matter what we are wearing, as we paint ourselves onto this canvas, eager to be at the side of John the Baptist, and at the feet of the one who made us, who loves us, and who saves us.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 July 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on July 15, 2018 .

Mister Mandela and Mister Rogers

A friend who visited South Africa not too long ago, told me about his tour of Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years of his 27 year incarceration, for his activities as an anti-apartheid activist and agitator.  My friend told me that you can see the cramped cell where Mandela was held - it was pictured recently in The NY Times.  And he said to me that if he had spent 27 years of his life in a cell like that, he’d have only one thing on his mind when he got out: vindication.  I don’t think he used the word  “revenge,” but I think it was implied, along with the hope that somebody would pay for the injustice portioned out to Mandela day by day by day.  Of course that injustice was a distillation of the daily doses of injustice brought to black South Africans day by day by day under decades of apartheid rule.  Vindication would be a measured way of suggesting a response, under the circumstances.

But the Times a few days ago published the texts of letters that Mandela wrote from prison.  This excerpt from a letter to his daughter, Zindzi, is typical of the surprisingly optimistic tone:

“It may be long before I come back; it may be soon. Nobody knows when it will be, not even the judge who said I should be kept here. But I am certain that one day I will be back at home to live in happiness with you until the end of my days.  Do not worry about me now. I am happy, well and full of strength and hope.”  (Nelson Mandela to his daughter Zindzi, Feb 4, 1969, from The NY Times).

In one of the letters the Times published, Mandela refers to the writings of St. Paul.  Perhaps remembering that Paul had been a prisoner too, this prisoner manages to find some virtue in his own imprisonment, even though his cell was barely large enough for him to lie down in.  He writes, “At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.”  And then, with a word of encouragement that is worth repeating many times over, he writes, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. … No ax is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise and win in the end.”  (Mandela to his wife, Winnie, Feb 1, 1975, from the NY Times)

I have to believe that Mandela had read a lot of St. Paul’s writings.  I expect he had read the apostle’s letters over and over.  I expect he had reflected on the odd little self-disclosure that St. Paul makes toward the end of 2nd Corinthians about some mysterious source of suffering in his life, some unidentified affliction, that Paul admits he begged Jesus, in his prayers, to take away from him.  In a sublime moment of revelation that could not be more matter-of-fact, by way declining to relieve Paul of whatever this affliction was, Jesus answers Paul’s prayer and says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”*

Mandela’s letters, if you ask me, are drenched in this insight that our Lord gave to St. Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.  And Mandela’s moral authority, in a very real sense, was established not so much because of the activities that put him in jail, but because of the grace he was given while he languished there for so long.  So much grace, from so much weakness, that his imprisonment began to indict the South African government before the white establishment knew what was happening.

If the New York Times realized how many of its pages in recent days have been advancing religion, they might review their editorial policy.

The day before the Mandela letters were published, Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece that might have been little more than a warm, fuzzy homage to Mister Rogers, who is enjoying a great, big, posthumous, warm, fuzzy moment just at this point in time, thanks to the fantastic documentary about him that’s been in the theatres.  But Brooks dug a little deeper than even the film does, and developed a theme he saw in Fred Rogers’ work that he calls “the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich; and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” (David Brooks in The NY Times, July 5 2018)

And Brooks tells us of an episode that was not included in the film: “In 1997 a teenage boy in Kentucky warned classmates that “something big” was going to happen. The next day he took a gun to school and shot eight classmates, killing three. Mister Rogers’s response was, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow.’” 

Brooks goes on to tell us that “Rogers dedicated a week’s worth of shows to the theme of ‘Little and Big’ on how little things can be done with great care.  Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first.”  You can call it a long moral tradition.  You can also call it the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You will have a hard time responding to the paradox of Jesus’ teaching and ministry if you don’t believe what St. Paul also had to come to believe, that Christ’s grace is sufficient for you, and that his power is made perfect in weakness.  It is this crucial insight that makes sense of the Cross, and that allows us who find ourselves at our wits end at various moments in our lives to look up at the Cross and see hope.  It is this essential paradox that allows us to find salvation in the blood that Jesus shed.  It is this deep truth that encourages sinners to keep on trying, even if the only thing you can try, is to make it through one more day in whatever prison you have found yourself in - maybe a prison of your own making.

When we hear of Jesus sending his apostles out into the world, two by two, and when we learn, as we did from St. Mark today, that “he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics,” it’s almost as if we can hear Jesus saying to his followers, in these restrictive instructions, “Go out and do something really little tomorrow.”  Can they possibly have expected great things?  They didn’t even have tokens for the trolley.  These, frankly, are the kind of spare and humble instructions you might expect to find on archived episodes of Mister Rogers, but not in many other places these days.

Another friend of mine has told me that as as child he regularly, and in a sophisticated way, imitated the entrance rite of Mister Rogers, timed in such a way as to do it in synchronization with the opening sequence of the show, when it came on.  He borrowed his father’s suit coat to make his entrance, hung it up and exchanged it for a cardigan.  Then he sat down and changed his shoes to sneakers.  Although he doesn’t confess this detail, I have no doubt that he was also singing along, that it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

It’s in just such a getup, with just such a song on your lips, following just such an example, that a person could almost imagine also taking to heart Jesus’ spare and humble commands.  Or that you could almost image understanding what St. Paul means when he says, “therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Whether it’s from a prison cell or in your living room, it matters who you listen to and what you believe.  It matters what we teach our children.  It matters if you believe that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.  It matters that you keep on trying, day after day after day, especially when it feels like you are at your wits end.  It matters when you decide to go out and do something really little tomorrow.

Take nothing for your journey.

Be a sinner who keeps on trying, armed with the hope that you will rise.

Imitate goodness when you see it.

Go out and do something really little tomorrow.

For Christ’s grace is sufficient for you, and his power is made perfect in weakness.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
8 July 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


*The NRSV translation of this verse reads, “power is made perfect in weakness.”  But the RSV rendered the text “my power is made perfect in weakness,” and the note in the NRSV Oxford Annotated Bible (and other versions, too) mentions that “other ancient authorities read my power.”

Posted on July 8, 2018 .