The Eighth (8th) Eothinon (Morning Orthros Gospel Reading)- March 21, 2010.
At our most recent Lenten Retreat, just a few weeks ago, our guest speaker, Dr. Vigen Guroian, an eminent Orthodox theologian and ethicist gave a talk titled “Ecological Musings from the Garden.” Dr. Guroian is an author of many books but two of them address gardening as a central theme and metaphor for our life. They are titled “The Fragrance of God” and “Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening.” Interestingly, in today’s Eothinon or Sunday Orthros Gospel Reading we see that Mary Magdalene supposes the risen Christ to be a gardener when she initially sees Him. Two great Fathers of the Church, Gregory the Great and Jerome comment on this point saying that Jesus is the spiritual gardener of our soul and that He is also the gardener of Eden or Paradise. In today’s passage we also see Jesus as shepherd.
We are in our eighth week of the series on the Eleven Eothina. Therefore, let us read again the Eighth Eothinon or gospel reading of the Sunday Orthros from John 20:11-18:
But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
Now the image of Christ as gardener is meaningful for a gardener tills the soil before he plants the seeds. Then he nurtures it through watering and weeding. Gregory the Great comments “Jesus planted the fruitful seeds of virtue in her heart by the force of His love.” We know that Christ had previously weeded Mary’s heart by casting seven demons from her. Now Christ sends His angels to till her heart asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v.13). Then, Jesus Himself tills by asking, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (v.15). We have spoken in previous weeks of the liturgical symbolism, that the priests of the Church represent the angels who sit at the door of the empty tomb, the Holy Gate, and proclaim the Resurrection. Indeed the probing questions show that they and Christ the Gardener care for the field and are trying to enter into a deeper communion with the flock through empathetic love.
The depth of this love or ‘agape’ is expressed when Jesus refers to Mary by name and she in turn, recognizes Him and calls Jesus “Rabboni” (v.16). This reveals Christ also as a shepherd. Earlier in the gospel of John we hear, “And the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:3-4). It means so much to us when an acquaintance remembers our name and when a friend or colleague uses our name while conversing with us. Our name sums up and symbolizes everything that we are in our unique, unrepeatable being. Christ knows us by name. He calls us by name, especially when we are the one lost sheep from Luke 15.
Let us return to Jesus’ question, “Whom are you seeking?” (v.15). Christ constantly asks this question because He made us to be seeking persons. We are always searching for something or someone who will give us fulfillment. It is central to who we are as persons. The key is searching for and finding the right person and that of course is Jesus Christ Himself because He made us. He knows best how we work and He alone can fulfill us giving our life its ultimate meaning. The Orthodox Study Bible notes in this passage, “The encounter between the risen Lord and ‘Mary’ is reminiscent of the encounter between the bride and her beloved in the Song of Solomon (SS 3:1-4). This parallel teaches that through the Resurrection, Christ has taken the Church to be His eternal Bride” In this short Old Testament passage we heard several times, “I sought him whom my soul loves” We, each one of us, are called to be brides of Christ. That’s why we call Him the Bridegroom.
Dr. Guroian, whom we mentioned earlier, also gave a talk at our Lenten Retreat titled, “Gay Marriage: Why it should Matter to the Church.” One of his central thesis is that the pursuit of the legitimacy of gay marriage is not only an assault on the institution of marriage itself but more importantly, an assault on the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian Faith. This is because the central iconic image that expresses the relationship between God and His people, between Christ and each one of us, is Bridegroom and Bride; not groom and groom, nor bride and bride. “Whom are you seeking?” God the creator of the universe and humanity or secular humanist materialist philosophy that fails to grasp the true meaning of our existence?
Moving on to our last point, later in the Song of Songs passage we hear, “I held him and would not let him go” (Song of Songs 3:4). Mary Magdalene, recognizing Christ in the garden must have wanted to embrace Him, holding on tightly in joy and not wanting Him to leave. However, Jesus responds by saying, “Do not cling to Me” (v.17). Now, Christ does not prohibit the touching of his resurrected flesh, for we commune with His flesh in the Eucharist, and He even commands Thomas to touch Him (v.27). Yet, here, Christ is instructing Mary to understand and accept that His life is not merely continuing in the same state as before, and that He will not remain with her as He did in the past, but is pressing forward to His Ascension to the ‘Father’. This is very good news though because Christ’s Ascension completes and fulfills the redemption of our humanity for He brings it with Him when He returns to the God the Trinity. Our restoration to communion with God is complete, perhaps even more than it was in the Garden of Eden. Christ emphasizes the point by saying that His Father is our Father and His God is our God (v.18).
We can only fully realize this fact if we let Christ till the soil of our heart, breaking up the hard soil of unrepentance, planting the seeds of virtue, and weeding out the sinful passions. God can be our Father if we let Christ be our shepherd, hearing and recognizing His voice and following Him. Let us be like the wise virgins and be ready and prepared for Christ the bridegroom who calls us to His wedding feast each and every day. Amen!
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.