Returning to the Garden
“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, thus restoring the possibility for communication and relationship once again. This interplay between communication, relationship, sin, and death can be outwardly and visibly observed through the symbols of the garden, the spring of living water, and the Tree of Life. This post explores how these symbols point to our eternal destination in the heavenly garden, how worship in spirit and truth causes life to grow within us, and how Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the fruit from the Tree of Life available to us even now as we make our return journey to the heavenly garden.
Human mortality was the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Yet God did not abandon humanity despite our disobedience. Our being cast from Paradise was a mercy. After eating from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve knew evil when formerly they only knew God’s goodness and harmony within creation. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned…If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:12,17).
After the noxious weeds of sin and death infiltrated the garden and wrapped their serpentine vines around the human heart, God’s mercy prevented us from eating also from the Tree of Life and so live for eternity in disharmony and disorder. In other words, He wanted to prevent us from living for all eternity in an existence where sin is present. That would be hell on earth, not the paradise He created us for.
One effect of death – perhaps the greatest effect – is that it destroys communication. Because of this, it also destroys relationship, since relationship requires communication. In God’s merciful plan of salvation, he sent his only begotten son to become death for us and so restore us to life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our former man was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:5-9).
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 she 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. Often, exile is accompanied by a time of testing and purification in the wilderness. Living in our present age in a world filled with sin and death is also an exile and wandering in the desert.
Fortunately, like He did for Israel, God does not abandon us to a hopeless fate. He accompanies us on our barren desert pilgrimage, working with us to transform our lives of sorrow and burden from a wasteland 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 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 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.
True worship is none other than the worship Jesus gave to the Father on the cross, and 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 through this valley of tears. The 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. 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 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. Jesus, the unblemished Lamb of God and perfect sacrifice to the Father, is given to us each time we receive the Holy Eucharist. 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 is the source for the river of life that feeds the tree of life. Jesus, the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) is revealed by each of these symbols, and this truth is the heart of the Easter Alleluia! May you be given the grace to proclaim this hope in the midst of your earthly sojourn. May it renew you with new life and make present God’s Kingdom now and for all eternity!