Maggie Helwig is an incredibly gifted novelist and poet and an old friend dating from the early 1990s when for four years (1991-1994) she and I edited the annual discovery & showcase anthology Coming Attractions published by Oberon Press. Among the new writers we discovered were Lisa Moore, Caroline Adderson and Elise Levine (who subsequently got her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts). Maggie lives in Toronto, and is the author of six books of poetry, two books of essays, a collection of short stories, and three novels. Her most recent novel, Girls Fall Down, was shortlisted for the Relit Award and the City of Toronto Book Award. She has worked as a human rights activist with organizations including the East Timor Alert Network and War Resisters’ International. Maggie is currently completing a Master of Divinity degree at Trinity College, and will be ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada in May.
Now the Green Blade Rises
By Maggie Helwig
A homily preached at Trinity College Chapel, Toronto, Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009
And at the beginning of everything, a garden.
Two people in a garden, and in this place the whole human story begins; begins and begins again, new, utterly changed.
John Donne wrote, “We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.” We knew this, two days ago, our failures and petty evils, our violence and greed, converging on that terrible death, all our sins wrapped up in the torture and murder of a man on a tree.
But this place, this day, is more than that, it is all places; it is the cross and the grave and the place of rebirth all at once, it is paradise and Jerusalem, the city and the garden, and in the meeting of these two people are all people, all of us falling at the feet of the unknown and so deeply known Resurrected One.
And Mary Magdalene in the garden, the last one left, pathetically stubborn, unable to let go, unable to accept the inevitable loss and move on; she is the first to know, and she is the first to tell the story.
But she begins with a mistake – or not a mistake, perhaps. Perhaps something more. The man approaches her, and she takes him for a gardener. It isn’t that surprising, really, that she doesn’t recognize Jesus right away. How could she have expected this? How could any of us expect this?
It isn’t easy – it shouldn’t be easy – to believe in resurrection. It is not expected, or normal, or anything like the world we know. When that fire flares up in the darkness at the Easter vigil it should be strange, impossible, the one thing that cannot happen. The natural order is bent backwards on itself, the dead alive. We should not reach Easter without astonishment, without confusion.
And there are some times, I admit, that I find it hard to reach Easter at all. Some years I do feel like we’re playing some sort of joke on ourselves. We say that we believe in this change, this resurrection, the promise of the whole world utterly new, but when we look around us, we don’t see very much of it. We see violence and oppression, we see grief and death, our own limitations, stunted love and bent lives, we see war and poverty, we see the tomb.
So if the risen Christ, human and divine, does walk towards us, he comes as an impossibility in this world, as we stand weeping. He comes to us as a gardener in a graveyard. As the one who works in the dirt, in the place where the bodies decay.
It is this way, then: a gardener. A gardener who takes a place of death, and begins to make it alive.
Lancelot Andrewes spoke about this: “Christ rising was indeed a gardener, and that a strange one, who made … a dead body to shoot forth out of the grave … 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 will in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.”
All our graves into garden plots. I want to think about that. This is how I can start to understand Easter.
Because I have seen graves made into garden plots. In Bosnia, after the war, I’ve seen the hills, covered with hundreds upon hundreds of small white grave markers, and I’ve seen the astonishing green of those hills, I’ve seen the planting that’s begun again there, as the landmines are cleared, as the farmers start to come back, even shepherds with little raggedy flocks on the dangerous slopes
And in Sarajevo, I’ve seen the mortar craters in the pavement, craters that have been filled in with bright red cement, so that they remain visible, and are beautiful. They call them Sarajevo roses.
The graves don’t go away. The Resurrection doesn’t make the grave go away. It does not change the fact that those hills were charnel houses, or that dismembered pieces of human bodies lay scattered in the Merkale marketplace in the heart of the city. And the risen Christ is wounded, holes in his hands and his feet and his side. None of it is erased. Not ever.
But the sheep on the green hills, the Sarajevo roses, they tell us something too about resurrection, that there is something alive and human that struggles to the surface, that springs up again and again however many land mines and mortars we throw against it.
For Christ risen, like Christ born, like Christ dead, like Christ always, shares the most profoundly human part of us and brings it into God. And the resurrection tells us that this is the profoundly human; the thing that lives. The garden, not the grave; the truer self, beyond the self that grasps and fights and kills.
Yet we need to be loyal to the grave. It was only because Mary Magdalene, stubborn and foolish and hopeless, would not leave the grave, was prepared to go in search of a hidden corpse and drag it back with her own two hands, that the living Christ came to meet her first. Lancelot Andrewes again: “Stand by Him while He is alive – so did many; stand, and go, and sit by Him. But stand by Him dead; Mary Magdalene, she did it, and she only did, and none but she. Amor stans juxta monumentum.” Love stands by the tomb.
And so it often is with us; for so much of the time, we are called to stand by him dead. We are called to stand by Christ in those shattered bodies in the Merkale market, or the hungry, sick, exploited bodies in the shelters and the street corners of Toronto, in the bodies of those who are working in sweatshops and plantations far away from us. We are called to stand by Christ in those whom we ourselves have failed and betrayed, and in our own weakness and sickness and mortality. We are called to stand by a broken world, nailed by human evil to a tree of pain.
And not out of duty but out of love. This is our love, like Mary Magdalene in the garden, to stand by him dead, to seek him in the grave, to persist beyond reason, far beyond the time when any sensible person would give up hope and accept the world as it is, the world dead. To continue to stand, loving and pointlessly loyal, waiting for something, hoping for something, that we cannot articulate, that we often cannot recognize when it comes towards us in the morning. The gardener who comes, bringing life from the dead land.
For this is the promise of this morning in the garden; that he will come towards us like the sunrise. That the gardener will know us, and call us each by our names, and return our love, that this most human and foolish part of us will after all be true, that death will not be the end. For love is stronger than death, and floods cannot drown it or the earth hold it prisoner.
All our graves into garden plots, all our losses into life, into light, into the living tree by the living water in the heart of the new creation, and we ourselves made new.
This is the promise: that it will all be redeemed, every last tear and drop of blood known, and counted, and brought somehow into a greater joy, a greater life, than we can ever imagine.
Let it be so. And let us find the beginnings of it now. Let it be that we can turn towards the person beside us in the graveyard, and speak each other’s names, and know and be known. Let it be that we can turn our graves to gardens, the green hills, the broken cities, let it be that we can do our small best to make them places of life, places where people are nourished and loved, where food and art and gentleness are grown. Let it be that we can mourn the deaths, work for justice, feed the hungry, touch the sick. And fail and fail, and try again, and reach out our inadequate hands for the bread and wine, the body and blood; and stand, there in that garden, in that morning, with One who will always speak our names, and name us for the first time.
–by Maggie Helwig