The word, “Eden” historically refers to an ancient land that was situated in the region of Southern Mesopotamia. The term is derived from the Sumerian word, eden meaning “a plain that is fertile”. In Hebrew, a word bearing a similar sound, makes referent to the notion of “delight”. The Garden in Eden as we hear of in the accounts of Genesis, thus can be understood to mean the “garden of delight”, while in Greek, it may be translated to mean, “paradise” (The New American Bible, 2004).
Well and good, but why is it that on the weekend of Easter, we are mentioning the Garden of Eden? To understand this, we would have to do a closer reading of the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John accounts the chronology of the Resurrection in a somewhat enigmatic fashion. We read of Mary of Magdala coming to the tomb while it was still dark, and upon discovering that the tomb stone had been removed, runs to Simon Peter and John to relay the news. We then see Peter and John racing to the tomb, of which we all now know “the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first” (John 20: 4).
The opening sequence of the Resurrection morning, is filled with hidden Easter eggs and meaning. On the first layer, we see John and Peter running to the tomb in joyful anticipation. On the second level, we are reminded of the Battle of Marathon that took place about 500 years before the birth of Christ. During the first Persian invasion of Greece, the battle was fought along the Marathon plain of the North-eastern side of Attica. When the Persian army started to advance in its attempted annex of Greece, the General Miltiades created an unexpected military strategy that confused the enemy lines, by deliberately weakening the centre, and fortifying the flanks of his army. The Persians were fooled by the illusion, and Miltiades’ army though vastly outnumbered, managed to win a resounding victory over the Persian forces. The General then commissioned Pheidippides to relay the message to the Grecian capital. Nonetheless, Pheidippides was 25 miles away from the seat of power. He then proceeded to run the full distance simply on foot. This is the origin of the modern marathon race (History.com, 2019). There is a powerful parallel to be drawn in the events of the Resurrection and the Battle of Marathon. First, the race was a race that carried or anticipated Good News. Second, there was a decisive victory that was wrought, despite the odds that were stacked against the protagonists. The Greeks were grossly outnumbered by the Persians, and Death had seemingly overcome Jesus. Yet the tables were turned in a most unexpected manner. The running in both instances also plays a significant role in preserving the integrity and authenticity of the Good News. Before any distortion, hearsay or speculation arose, Pheidippides needed to convey the truth of the battle outcome. In like manner, the disciples ran to the grave and arrived before anyone else from the public or the Romans came, to verify the truth of the Resurrection. What they saw in the tomb, thus bears honest testimony that there was no grave-robbing event, manipulation, or altercation involving the dead body of Christ. What they witnessed is the veritable truth of an empty tomb that came to be through no means of human intervention.
So back to the Garden. We understand that the tomb was located in a garden that was very near to the site of the crucifixion. We also know from John’s Gospel that Mary of Magdala stayed outside the tomb and wept. She plays a crucial role as a witness to the angelic activity in the tomb. In fact, she is the first person who meets Jesus after the resurrection. Nonetheless, this witnessing is not without humour, for Jesus is found standing beside her, and she mistakes Jesus for a gardener (cf. John 20).
A casual reader may simply brush aside the motif of the garden and the gardener as being circumstantial to the surrounding convenience of the landscape. Yet to a discerning reader, we understand, that things found in Scripture are usually deliberate and not placed there by coincidence, or by accident.
This brings us back to the beginning when God creates life and we encounter the Garden of Eden (cf. Genesis 1-3). We know that God tasked his creation, Man and Woman to be stewards of creation. We also are cognizant of how they fell prey to the wiles of the serpent, and neglected their duty. The Gospel of John is filled with plant imagery, for example in John 15, Jesus refers to himself as the vine, and reminds us that any branch that does not bear fruit needs to be pruned away. It is important that Jesus being the new Adam, will be the one who restores the neglected Garden of Eden to its full and intended flourishing and glory. So, Mary of Magdala, may have been prophetic, albeit unintentionally, when she thought of Jesus as the gardener. Jesus is the New Adam, who is going to ensure that the Garden is delightful the way it was supposed to be, by weeding out death, weeding out pests, and weeding out invasive species that have no business being in the garden. As the master Gardener, Jesus would know the right treatments and remedies to tend to the individual plants that have wilted away, or that which are in peril.
The Gospel of John is written in such a way to provide reference to the Book of Genesis. Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel speaks of how, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. “(John 1:1-5) Coincidentally, there is a similar stylistic pattern in the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1: 1-3) Jesus in His Resurrection is the light that has overcome the darkness. Interestingly, the opening account of the Resurrection sequence also begins in darkness just as dawn is about to break.
Thus we see in Jesus the Gardener, the processes of creation, and rejuvenation. What was broken by disobedience, has now been restored to its rightful territory and place through obedience. What was made fragmentary and confusing through deceit, is now made whole and clear in truth. What was once darkness, is now in holy light, and what was dead is now alive.
Who are we looking for on Easter morning? Can we recognise Jesus the Gardener standing beside us?
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
History.com. (2019). Battle of Marathon. History. Retrieved April 14, 2022 from https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/battle-of-marathon
The New American Bible (2004). Bible Commentary on Genesis. (St. Joseph’s Edition). St. Paul’s.