Detail from Christ with St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, Rembrandt, 1638.
The chapel is Romanesque or Norman in style, and has a very old feel with its massive, thick walls and rounded arches. Behind the altar, as a focal point for the space, there’s a mural, done by Jan Henrik DeRosen in 1939. It shows the Entombment of Christ, as befits a chapel dedicated to St. Joseph. Though the picture clearly indicates the burial of Christ, the face of Jesus still has life to it. It has character and particularity. Jesus is not some vague spirit-presence. He is someone’s son, someone’s brother and friend. Here is a body, a particular body, who is recognized and loved even as he is now being mourned.
The face of Jesus in that mural looks lively, in part, because it was based upon a person who in the 1930’s was very much alive. All of the characters in the mural, as with many of the carvings, paintings, and sculptures in the cathedral, were modeled on real people in and around the life of the cathedral. In this picture the model for the Jesus is said to have been the head man from the boiler room.
I love that. The artist didn’t pick a bishop to be the model for Jesus. He didn’t pick the best looking person, or the smartest, or the one with the most money. Maybe he picked the one who could sit still the longest. Or maybe it was totally by coincidence. Or maybe there was something about the boiler room man that seemed vaguely Christlike—a smile, a gentleness, a strength, a glimmer in his eye—who knows?
Our cathedral is not unusual in suggesting through art that the Holy shines through regular, ordinary people. God does it all the time.
Over and over, in scripture, in history, and in our lives, God shows up in what might seem like the least likely person, in the most unlikely of places. God shows up to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three strangers. God shows up to Jacob in a wrestling match of a dream. In the Book of Esther, God shows up in the words and acts of Queen Esther, Mordecai, and even a Persian King. God shows up in Bethlehem, in the carpenter’s shop, and in dusty Palestinian villages. God is in the garden. God is on the cross. And God shows up at a fish fry on the beach that first Easter morning. God shows up as a wanderer on the road to Emmaus.
When has God shown up for you? Was it in someone you knew, or a total stranger? Was it through a book, or a movie, a piece of music, or a sudden insight? Did it happen in church, or at work, or at the beach? Or was it, like with Mary Magdalene, in a garden?
That Easter morning, Jesus shows up as a gardener for at least two reasons, I think. The first is to remind us to be on the lookout for him. God is often disguised in our world, but with eyes of faith, we can see and rejoice and be a part of the continued resurrection of his love.
But there’s a second reason why Jesus appears as a gardener: It’s because sometimes we are called to appear as Jesus, to be his hands and feet and mouth in the world. We’re called to speak up for those who have lost their voice or had their voice taken from them. We’re called to reach out and help heal. We’re called to grow and cook and feed the hungry, to build and provide in order to house the homeless.
Symeon (the New Theologian), a tenth century mystic, puts this beautifully as he writes
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
And live aware, as well, that Christ may just as soon shine through you to bring his light more fully into the world.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.