Jesus the Gardener


In 1638 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 .