“For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3).
The cross and resurrection of Jesus transformed death into an encounter with God Himself. Even prior to our own death, we have access to this same encounter in Eucharistic worship. This is especially important after the death of a loved one. Grief causes great chaos in a person’s soul and life. Death destroys communication and harmony, and places a person at odds with their surroundings – whether that be relationships, work, hobbies, or familiar routines. What was once an ordered garden becomes a violent wilderness, a desert where life becomes extremely difficult.
The human race began in a garden – the Garden of Eden. This was distinct from the wilderness. A garden is a place where all life and nature are in harmony with one another. There was harmony and communion in the beginning. Discord, division, and death made their grand entrance into the human drama only after the serpent tempted Eve and after her and Adam ate of the fruit of the tree that God forbade them to eat. The human race was expelled from the Garden, and the gate was blocked by the cherubim (a rank of angel) and by a flaming sword to prevent access to the tree of life (Genesis 3). This was humanity’s first exile, but it would not be our last.
Throughout the Bible exile and return are recurrent themes. Jacob and his sons going into Egypt, Moses leading them out of Egypt, Israel and Judah’s Babylonian captivity and the small remnant’s return to Jerusalem are all examples of exile and return in the Old Testament. Death and grief are also like exile and wondering in the desert. But like Israel, God does not abandon us to a hopeless fate. He accompanies us in the barren desert of grief, working with us to transform our lives of sorrow from a waste into a garden of joy, peace, and life once again. The Prophet Isaiah promised:
“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it” (Isaiah 41:17-20).
Worship of God in the Eucharist is the source of the springs of water Isaiah speaks of in this passage. In John’s Gospel (John 4:1-42) this aspect of worship is revealed further. Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria on their way to Galilee. While the disciples traveled into a nearby city to obtain food, Jesus remained at a well to rest. A Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well. Knowing her deepest needs, Jesus spoke to her:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’” (John 4:13-14).
Jesus met the Samaritan woman in her physical need of thirst and used it as an occasion to pierce through the thick walls of her spiritual wounds and her sins. He pointed to a higher reality. The greater human thirst is not physical but spiritual. As the conversation progressed, Jesus challenged her assumptions about worship. No longer is worship of God to be contained to a place. The new boundaries of worship are spirit and truth.
We explored in our last post “Worship After Death” that true worship is none other than the worship Jesus gave to the Father on the cross, and that this worship is perpetually offered in the Eucharist. Worshiping in spirit and truth is the source of Jesus’ living water that he promised to the woman and to us. This living water sustains us now as a wellspring of grace during our sojourn on earth and through grief. This renewal that is accessed through worship is meant to sustain us as we journey to our final home in heaven.
We enter heaven by passing through death. However, death is not the entrance, but is more like a door that is opened. It is the empty tomb of Jesus Christ that is the entrance back into the garden. The Resurrection account in the Gospel of John subtly but profoundly takes up this garden theme that began in Genesis.
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 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.’ Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she 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 in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni! (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (John 20:11-18).
Mary was first met by two angels in white sitting where Jesus body had been laid. Secondly, she mistook Jesus for a gardener! The connection of the tomb, the angels, and the garden begin to become clear. No longer do the angels guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden to prevent humanity’s access to the tree of life. Rather they serve to point to the Risen Christ. The empty tomb of the Resurrection is the new entrance to the garden. The Tree of Life that is our healing and renewal during grief is primarily an initiative of God. For our part, we enter into this transformative process of death into life through worship. Yet, it is difficult to grasp the reality of this renewal because it is something that remains invisible to us. To further help us, God has provided revelation with rich imagery of this invisible reality between life and death. At the end of the Book of Revelation, God brings us back to where the entire story began – the Garden.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:1-5).
The river of life feeds the tree of life – the very same tree that humanity was cut off from when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. This new garden contains not only the river of life and the tree of life, but also the throne of God and the Lamb – the same Lamb who is Jesus, the unblemished and perfect sacrifice to the Father. Connecting Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, the events of the empty tomb, and the rich imagery of this passage, it becomes even more clear that Eucharistic worship of God is both the source of life and of renewal.
The Kingdom of God is the place which we all seek to go. It is present to us now when we worship in spirit and truth. We enter it fully after the door of death is opened, and we pass through the empty tomb of Jesus. The springs of living water granted to us in worship are fed by the river of life that feeds the tree of life. This is the heart of the Easter Alleluia! May you be given the grace to proclaim in the midst of grief this proclamation of hope. May it renew you with new life and and make present God’s Kingdom now and for all eternity!
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.”
Because Jesus is Risen, grief is not a barren wilderness but is transformed into a garden. Yet, gardening is difficult work. In the winter of grief, all is frozen and dead. As spring thaws our frozen hearts, the ground softens but is left a tangled mess. Dead leaves, plants and grass overlay the dirt. Before anything can be planted, the soil must be prepared, and the dead remnants removed. Preparing the soil is an act of hope because there is no immediate return, no fruit yielded from preparing the soil, removing rocks, and pulling away weeds. Only in the sun of late spring is the soil conditioned to receive the seed or for a new plant to be transplanted. The summer of grief is no less arduous. In the hot afternoon sun of sorrow we toil and sweat, pulling weeds, protecting our growing plants from pests, watering thirsty roots to ward off drought, and pruning unwanted branches from forming. Only after much hope, work, and sacrifice in the autumn twilight is a garden’s hope realized.
We can neglect any part of transforming the barren wilderness of grief into a garden. This will affect the fruit of grief and the restoration process. However, we can take heart in knowing that the primary work is not ours, but God’s. He comes to us in Word and Sacrament to nourish us, guide us, prune us, and create new growth where only death is present.
Reflect on the Easter Mystery and the Resurrection of Jesus. How does this affect how you grieve? Ask for the hope and consolation of the Resurrection to comfort and mend your broken heart. Pray:
Lord, Jesus Christ, in your Rising from the dead you restored us to a new and living hope. Enter into my grief that I may experience your victory over death and be reunited with my child in your grace. Place within me a spring of living water to renew my barren soul that new life may begin to grow in me. Renew and restore me and my family into the blessed confidence of one of your children. May I find rest in your company beside the waters of life in the peace of your heavenly garden. Amen! Alleluia!