When my husband and I were expecting our second son, we were living in Scotland, where winter is a grim business. Our home was far enough north that daylight hours were startlingly few. And because our house was near the sea, a thick gray fog often clung to everything—the air filled with a damp chill. Days, even weeks, without sunlight were by no means uncommon.
Through that long season, we waited. The days shortened and dimmed, and I felt the baby move for the first time. Christmas came, and with it, health complications. I spent time in the hospital, weak and dehydrated, worried about my baby. I moved slowly, then slower still. In the weeks that followed, I washed the baby clothes and folded the cloth diapers. My husband practiced the drive to the hospital.
But in time, the days grew longer and lighter. Through it all, I talked to my baby and prayed.
Spring came. I sat in church, expectant and restless, well past my due date yet wondering if deliverance would ever come. The members of our congregation murmured sympathetically at my size and exhaustion. “Soon, dear,” they said.
They were right. That afternoon, I went home from church, doubled over with sudden pains, and left for the hospital.
The trip there, an hour of twists and turns through storybook countryside and farms, was strangely calm, despite the fact that it was clear our baby would be born before long. Along the way, and between contractions, I reveled over the sweet lambs and calves, who wobbled on thin legs next to their mothers—some frolicking, others nursing in green fields of new grass.
I thought it then, and I still think that spring is a wonderful time to have a baby. The days lengthen and the world comes alive again after winter’s deathly chill. The crocuses and snowdrops push their way through the cold, damp earth. The trees bud and blossom, and after a time of anguish and suffering (aptly called labor), a new little soul opens his eyes to the world for the first time.
A New Beginning
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila, the aging pastor Reverend Ames remarks that his strict Calvinist grandfather would not approve of the Christmas tree he’s placed in his home, or the lights he used to decorate it—his grandfather saw it as paganism to bring greenery indoors and make fires midwinter. “It’s true, no one really knows anything about when Jesus was born, the time of year,” Ames says. “Spring would seem like a better time to celebrate a birth. But it’s even better for resurrection. Everything coming back to life.”
We might wonder why early Christians didn’t observe the Feast of the Nativity (which we now celebrate as Christmas) in the springtime, when the climate of Europe turned from harsh and forbidding to mild and pleasant. Instead, they celebrated it “in the bleak midwinter,” as one old carol puts it—at the darkest time of year. Perhaps we commemorate the resurrection in springtime because we understand that before the rebirth of Easter can occur, there must be great suffering and darkness of the crucifixion and burial.
To live and to love in this world is to suffer loss. Those who are precious to us die, floods and famines sweep away whole communities, old people languish in loneliness, children are abused and neglected. Where is God, we ask ourselves, when the world seems dark and unforgiving? When sin, greed, and suffering seem to have triumphed over righteousness, generosity, and peace? When it seems that God has brought us into a wasteland and left us to die? Sometimes it seems the light will never return—that resurrection will never come.
Where is God, we ask ourselves, when the world seems dark and unforgiving?
John’s Gospel presents a beautiful image—the one many of us have in mind when we picture Christ’s resurrection—of Mary Magdalene looking for Jesus on a spring morning, and weeping when she finds angels in the otherwise empty tomb. Not only has her Lord died, but now His body is missing. When a man asks why she’s crying, she assumes he is the gardener and asks if he knows where the body has been taken.
He calls her by name. For it is He. And morning has broken, like the first morning.
Though not, strictly speaking, an Easter hymn, “Morning Has Broken” expresses something essential about both resurrection and springtime, something that may help us under-stand why the seemingly pagan (or at least “secular”) chicks and bunnies and ducklings and flowers and grass and eggs go along in many people’s imaginations with crosses and empty tombs. It’s fitting that Jesus’ resurrection—God’s creation beginning again—happens in a garden like the one God first made for humankind. The dark, cold sting of death, the anguish of it all, ends with Jesus risen from the grave.
Is it any wonder that Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Jesus for a gardener? Perhaps it is not a mistake at all. Jesus is the gardener of the New Creation—of the city of God, where there will be no more winter, death, tears, or even any more sun, for the one who made us and calls us by name will be our light, forever and ever.
Yes, for now, we still suffer death and illness and loss. But we have the firstfruits of God’s promise that it will not always be that way—that we, along with this weary world, will be redeemed, made whole, made new.