At this time of year, just as my thoughts turn to Easter, I think of gardening, and as soon as I think of gardening, I’m reminded of Easter, and then I’m back to gardening, and then back to Easter, and so forth. If my toing and froing sounds like spring fever, well, it is.
After all, let’s remember that Easter, spring and the garden are inextricably linked, together forming a richly wrought tapestry interwoven with deep, ancient historical, symbolic and religious meanings.
Spring is the season of salvation. The dead of winter, is, metaphorically, the death of our souls; the time when plants die, and animals go into hibernation. Life is on its knees. Even our thoughts change from active to reflective. Sometimes in winter, when our light-deprived selves have exhausted our psychic pantry of serotonin, the death can seem actual rather than metaphorical. By winter’s end we haven’t just taken stock of our situation, we’ve used most of it up.
Thus, Easter, spring and the garden represent thresholds: moving from a suspended state to new beginnings. In Easter, we transition from sinning humankind to a future of salvation; with spring, we emerge from a still, slumbering, gray season of scarcity to a season when nature takes on vibrant new colors, textures and sounds. With the garden, we experience the shift from poverty to plenty.
Now is the time we look away from the past and turn our focus to the future. Easter lets us look forward to salvation, spring to summer, the garden to what we must do to sustain ourselves. The passage from Phillipians comes to mind, where St. Paul speaks of, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”
Whether gardeners or not, religionists or not, at this time of year we all feel the renewal of life: new hope, illumination, the uplifted spirit. We revel in the longer days, the marvels awaiting us out of doors: the pageant of colors, the cantatas of birdsongs, the elixir of fragrance in the air.
Easter is not the only link between religion and the garden. The roots of religion are universally agricultural. Mankind’s earliest writings were, in one sense, agricultural manuals, in another books of religious instruction, so entwined were the two concerns.
The garden is not merely a great metaphor—it is the first metaphor. From a biblical perspective, we all began in the garden. You might recall Adam, Eve and the awkward matter of the apple of temptation, humankind’s original and greatest sin. Disobeying their Creator’s strict instructions, Adam and Eve partook of the apple offered by their serpentine interlocutor.
God promptly exiled the couple from the paradisiacal Garden of Eden, and sentenced the pair, their descendents, and all mankind—to what? Gardening! Yes, the never-ending punishment for our greatest sin is to become a gardener. By casting out Adam and Eve, the Creator gave his children the responsibility to create their own lives. Rather than lolling about the paradisiacal garden, we’ve been working in our own earthly gardens ever since.
Though our worldly realm may have its cares and woes, diseases and pests, lives and deaths, we get to do it ourselves. And when reason fails us, or fate strikes a stunning blow, we don’t so much pray to God as we do talk to God. This is because it is God who asks the questions, who challenges us every year in the spring.
Original sin was the beginning of reason. The point of reason is that mortals are, in effect, never saved. One has to save oneself with God looking on—which is how he helps. And after saving yourself — just like in the airline oxygen mask instruction—you turn to help the weak and defenseless, aka your fellow human beings. Nowhere is this spirit more eloquently expressed than in the garden—home, community or public. Brother helping brother; neighbor helping neighbor — what a miracle!
As Henry David Thoreau, that American original, once observed, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.