The Revd Canon Dr William Lamb
Easter Day


Choral Eucharist with Easter Ceremonies

Acts 10.34-43     John 20.1-18

A couple of years ago, I travelled to South Eastern Turkey to an area not far from the Syrian border, a mountainous region which stands above the plain of Mesopotamia below. The place is known as Tur Abdin, the Mountain of the Servants of God. In the early church, these hills running up to the mountain plateau were littered with monks living in caves and monasteries, and yet over the centuries, through civil war, persecution and genocide in the early twentieth century, these communities are now a vulnerable minority. Their worship is very ancient and is still offered in Syriac, a language which is close to Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

This area is still the home of Syrian Orthodox Christians, and around the mountain, you will find a number of monasteries, where in spite of years of war and conflict, the monks have faithfully worshipped God, maintained schools to educate the young, and offered hospitality to pilgrims and visitors. They have often done so in the face of routine harassment from corrupt officials and others who have sought to steal their land or make their lives difficult.

We stayed at the monastery of Deirul Zafaran. Since the nearby city of Mardin has expanded, attracting large numbers of visitors from all over Turkey to admire its classic Mesopotamian architecture, the monastery now attracts huge numbers of tourists as well. There is even a visitor centre and coach loads of tourists arrive during the day. Visitors can discover more about the history of the monastery, purchase a bottle of wine from the monastery estate in the monastery shop, or buy an ice-cream. It rather reminded me of Radcliffe Square on a bank holiday weekend. But there has been a cost to this. Some of the monks have withdrawn to other monasteries in Tur Abdin to escape the noise and distraction of Deirul Zafaran. They have sought to recover the silence of the desert. These days the Archbishop of Mardin (who studied here in Oxford) resides in the monastery, with the Abbot, and some refugees, monks and nuns, from Iraq.  

The monastery is sometimes is described as the Saffron Monastery, partly because of the honey red colouring of the stone. At the heart of the monastery is a church which dates from the sixth century. Around the ancient walls many trees have been planted – olives, pomegranates, almonds, as well as vines. There is also a walled garden, with running water and sheltered seating to ward off the heat of the day. The monks use an old Persian word to describe this delightful place. It is called, ‘Paradise’. As you stand at the gate, you can see the extent of the Mesopotamian plain below. In the far distance, you can see the Syrian border, and the ancient city of Nisibis.

The word ‘paradise’ has many associations. It’s a word which entered the English language from the Latin paradisus,which is a paraphrase of the Greek paradeisos. This draws on an old Persian word, which refers literally to a ‘walled enclosure’. In the Hebrew Bible, references to ‘paradise’ are often simply references to a beautiful garden. But in the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Ezekiel, there are echoes of the garden of Eden, a garden which is imbued with great significance. For in the Book of Genesis, we read that, ‘The Lord God planted a garden in Eden’ (Genesis 2.8).

In the New Testament, there are just a couple of references to ‘paradise’. In the course of St Luke’s passion narrative, Jesus tells the repentant thief, ‘Truly, this day you will be with me in Paradise.’ St Paul refers to paradise in one of his letters, the Second Letter to the Corinthians, when he says, that he ‘was caught up into the third heaven… and taken into Paradise where he heard things that are not to be told’ (2 Cor. 12.2-4), and then in the Book of Revelation, the seer records the words of an angel inviting the church in Ephesus ‘to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’

‘On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.’ John’s narrative at this point is characterized by extraordinary sensitivity. Mary Magdalene weeps. She is grieving, still reliving the trauma of Good Friday and weeping for the loss of her friend. She has come to anoint the body of Jesus, but she does not know where they have laid him. And then she speaks to someone she imagines to be the ‘gardener’. At the end of Chapter 19, as Nicodemus take the body of Jesus away, John tells us that ‘there was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (John 19.41). The placing of the cross and tomb in a garden is a feature peculiar to John’s Gospel.

Now scholars argue about the allusiveness of the language of the fourth evangelist. In his Bampton Lectures, delivered from this pulpit, Bishop John Robinson wanted to impress his listeners with the historicity of John’s account of the life of Jesus, the ‘priority of John’. For Robinson, the reference to a garden is just another bit of plain eyewitness testimony. But for others, the fact that Mary mistakes Jesus not for a guard or a soldier, but a gardener, is significant.

The ‘garden’ is an ever present theme in the scriptures. Right at the beginning of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis describes a garden planted by God in Eden. With its account of the Fall, we discover a story about the world as it ought to be, but as yet is not. Then at the very end of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, offers a story of the world as it will be: as a paradise with ‘the tree of life’ planted in the middle, where ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. But in between, there is another story of the garden as a place of sweat and blood, and pleading and betrayal; a place of darkness, of the night, which is also a place of freshness and unexpected recognition. Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener, and in that moment we receive an intimation of what St Paul describes as the new creation. For as the gospel reminds us, ‘Mary comes to the tomb on the first day of the week….’

That intimation of the ‘new creation’ comes into focus at the point that Jesus utters Mary’s name. That moment of recognition, amidst all the fear and the anxiety, the grief and the sorrow of what has unfolded in the course of Holy Week, is the moment when Mary is able to reach beyond the isolation of grief to recover her true self, in all its beauty and complexity, to see in the face of Jesus Christ the possibility that her life might be made new.

This is the hope that lies at the heart of the Easter mystery, that the cross is the tree of life. Even though we live in a world which is increasingly anxious, a world threatened by war and conflict, a world imperiled by environmental disaster, a world which speaks of that garden that lies between Eden and Paradise, even though we know the pleading and betrayal of Gethsemane, even though we see the horror of Golgotha in the streets of Gaza and in the despair of Bucha and Mariopol, we still have reason to hope, and however precarious that hope may sometimes be, it inspires the courage to live a life of discipleship in faith and love – for in the resurrection, we discover that there is nothing lost that God cannot find again. Nothing dead that cannot live again in the presence of his Spirit. No heart so dark, so hopeless, so broken, that it cannot be enlightened and brought back, warmed back to the life of love.