Jesus the Gardener and Mary Magdalen on Easter morning by artist: Juan de Flandes

Jesus the Resurrected Gardener — John 20:1-9

Kathleen Rushton traces the themes of creating and re-creating in John 20:1–9 and highlights the resurrected Jesus as completing the work of the Divine Gardener.

Time and again, we hear that in John’s resurrection story Mary Magdalene was confused when, “weeping outside the tomb,” she turned, saw Jesus and thought he was the gardener (John 20:11, 15). It could be that Mary was confused. It well may be, also that Mary was absolutely correct — Jesus is the gardener. How can this be so? In John’s gospel many strands of creation and re-creation are evoked to tell the story of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Creation and re-creation interweave. In the Scriptures, creation is the Garden of God. God is the Gardener. John’s gospel begins by evoking the garden of Genesis: “In the beginning...” (Jn 1:1) and ends with: “Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb” (Jn 19:41). Here incarnation, death and resurrection are linked with re-creation. Jesus is the Gardener!

The climax of the liturgical year is the feast of the Resurrection. During the octave of Easter, John 20 is proclaimed in the eucharistic liturgy. Eastertide continues over six weeks, keeping in focus the risen Jesus who empowers the people of God every day of the year. Pithily, Augustine describes our identity and new way of being: 

“We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.” 

Benedict XVI describes re-creation through Jesus’ resurrection as 

“like an explosion of light, an explosion of love ... It ushered in a new dimension of being ... It is a qualitative leap in the history of ‘evolution’ and of life in general towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself.” (Easter Vigil Homily, 2006).

The Divine Gardener

God “planted a garden in Eden, in the East” (Genesis 2:8). Like a gardener, God cultivated it (Gen 2:9) and walked in it (Gen 3:8). Elsewhere, God is described explicitly as a gardener (Numbers 24:6; 4; Maccabees 1:29). Throughout the first five verses of John’s gospel, other creation motifs are evoked — light, life and darkness. As God is central to biblical creation, so too is Jesus inserted into God’s creation. In the prologue, Jesus is portrayed as Wisdom-Sophia, who was with God at the beginning of the work of creation (Proverbs 8:22-36). Only John’s gospel places the death-resurrection of Jesus in a garden. In addition, we are told that Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Jn 20:1) and also appears to his disciples on the first day of the week (Jn 20:19).

“Let there be light”

In the Genesis creation narrative, the first specific creative act of God deals with the darkness which covered the earth. God acts by the creative word: “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Darkness is not dispelled by the creation of light but ordered in relation to light. In John’s incarnation narrative, the Word was the life which was “the light of all people” (Jn 1:3). “The One”, later named as Jesus, is: “The light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). The resurrection narrative begins, also, with darkness evoking re-creation: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb” (Jn 20:1).

In Genesis 3:3, the woman tells the serpent that they are not to touch the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. Exactly the same Greek verb is used when Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him (Jn 19:18). A link is made here between the woman of Genesis who does not obey and Mary Magdalene who does obey by telling the disciples that Jesus has risen. It would seem here, too, by the use of the verb “touch,” the materiality of the body is acknowledged.

Completing the Works of God

Several times we hear about how the works of God are to come to completion in Jesus. This is especially so as Jesus’ death approaches. Just before he said: “I am thirsty,” we are told: “Jesus knew that all was finished.” His last words on the cross are: “It is finished.” Earlier, Jesus had explained his own work in relation to God’s work. His food is to finish the works of God (Jn 4:34). God gave him works to finish (Jn 5:36). These references echo Genesis where: “God rested from all the work that God had done in creation” (Gen 2:2). A completed creation is sealed by Sabbath rest, yet God’s work is incomplete. Jesus continues God’s work. He heals and re-creates even on the Sabbath.


As Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Jn 20:1), he appears to his disciples also on the evening of the first day of the week (Jn 20:19). The centrepiece of John 20 are the verses 19-23 when the disciples were gathered and Jesus came and “stood in the midst” of the community. This positioning of the Risen One links back to the tree of life in the midst of the garden (Gen 2:9). Jesus on the cross, too, was in the middle of two others who were crucified with him (Jn 19:18).

Two actions unfold, initiated by Jesus. His “Peace be with you” greeting fulfills his promise to give a peace the world cannot give (cf. Jn 14:27; 16:33). He shows them his hands and his side. Repeating the gift of peace, Jesus, then, commissions the new People of God as he had been commissioned by God. Second, he “breathed on them” saying “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22). The verb “breathed on” is found only here in the NT and three times in the Greek Bible (of the early Church) referring directly to creation. Jesus’ action evokes God giving life to the Earth creature (adam) who was formed from the Earth (ha’adam) with God’s breath. (Gen 2:7, cf. Wisdom 15:11). The prophet Ezekiel is told to breathe on the dry bones that the House of Israel may be re-created.

John 20 concludes by referring to the believers “of all times” (Jn 20: 30-31), in other words, the Church. We are called to enter into God’s creative process for in “the Christian understanding of the world the destiny of all creation is bound up with the mystery of Christ.” (Laudato Si’ par 99). Pope Francis also pointed out that “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (Laudato Si’ par 66). Deborah Manning’s disturbing yet hopeful article (TM March 2016) offers a practical alternative to the environmental impact of organic material rotting in landfills in Aotearoa New Zealand. She outlines how that food can be collected to feed the needy. We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song. We are to be Gardeners in the work of re-creation: 

“Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (Laudato Si’ par 244).
Published in Tui Motu InterIslands, Issue 204 April 2016.