‘You will bring them in and plant them O Lord, in the sanctuary which your hands have established.’
God the gardener…
In the books of the Hebrew Scriptures God is often referred to in terms of a gardener, establishing his people like ‘oaks of righteousness’, planting them by the ‘streams of water’ that are his Word. There is a special significance to gardens if you are a wandering, tribal people… gardens show stability, establishment… you can’t pack up a garden like a tent, but must remain in one place with sufficient confidence and energy to plant and tend a garden.
Kings had gardens, they were a statement -‘I am not afraid of my enemies, and as my planting shows, I have been here for a good long time, so that is unlikely to change.’
When the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the desert for a generation, it was the garden fruits and vegetables, the onions and watermelons, cucumbers and fruits that the Israelites complained of missing. But the opening extract is from Exodus, from the triumphal song of Moses and Miriam as they reached the other side of the red sea, leaving the horses and chariots of the Egyptians behind them…
They have been uprooted and now they are speaking of being transplanted into a garden of God’s creation. A sanctuary, like a king’s garden, under the protection of the Lord. For a linguist like me it is an interesting aside that the word ‘Harem’ has its arabic roots in the meaning ‘sanctuary’- a sacred place of safety. The image thus conjured up when I read of people ‘planted’ in a ‘sanctuary’ is very much of a beautiful cloister garden -a place protected on all sides by walls, but filled within with beautiful, scented flowers and greenery.
Gardens feature a lot in the New Testament too… Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, and is then betrayed there… but Jesus is also buried in a tomb within a garden, and Mary encounters him there at dawn, in one of my favourite pieces of scripture, ‘supposing him to be the gardener’ (John 20:15). In the ancient Genesis story, after Adam and Eve have been convinced on the snake’s advice, to eat the forbidden fruit, then God goes looking for them, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening…
I love to link those two images -of God wandering through the garden he has made at creation’s dusk, looking for his beloved humanity, who are hiding… And then meeting his beloved humanity at dawn, as they look for God’s Son who they thought was dead; and supposing him to be the gardener. Which of course he is.
‘I am the true vine and my father is the gardener’ (John 15:1) God the gardener, and also the vine. Jesus the tree of life planted on earth, with roots amongst the dead, branches on earth, and first fruits in heaven… and we are to be spiritually grafted in to the vine, and to drink the fruit of the vine in remembrance that it is Christ’s blood shed for us.
As grafted stems we also are to abide in the true vine and bear fruit, and, as Paul writes, we also may be ‘poured out as a libation’, here on earth. If we bear no fruit we will find ourselves cut off, but even if we do bear fruit, we will be ‘pruned’ so that we bear more… and now I am responsible for an established vine on the wall of the house in which we live, I see how much attention it requires, and how fiercely one must prune it each year… for several months it has not looked like anything more than a dead twig, but now the sun is beginning to shine on it steadily, there are buds amid the wrinkled grey branches and I can’t tell you how exciting that is.
Last year I untangled and carefully dug-up a poisonous woody-nightshade plant that had grown up from by the roots of the vine and wound its way in amongst its branches; and in October we harvested grapes from the vine, and though the birds had eaten more than half, we still produced 2 and a half jars of sweet, dark grape-jelly. (Real jelly, not metaphorical, though God knows I’m open to reflecting on the symbolism of all that too!)
Today is a ‘rogation day’… (from Latin ‘rogare’-to ask for) when farmers pray for a good harvest, and when priests in some parishes beat the bounds and bless the fields. This year, as I approach my ordination to the priesthood we will see if my vine produces anything… I pray it will.