Savannah, Georgia, is a beautiful city of gardens and cemeteries and parks. Our youngest daughter went to college in Savannah just as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became popular in both book and movie versions. She had a job, for a summer, working in one of the cemeteries, where she reset gravestones and restored family monuments. Some of them had been looted and reconfigured by General Sherman’s troops after his infamous Civil War “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah wasted many communities.
Sherman loved Savannah, however, and when we visited we could understand why. When platted in 1769, Savannah’s founders created four “squares” of public park space to enhance the social life of its residents. As the city grew, the squares multiplied to twenty-four, enhanced by other larger parkland areas and marvelously crafted cemeteries. Today Savannah’s southern charm is enhanced by ghost stories and reported sightings in its ancient buildings and sultry public squares lined by Spanish moss-hung oaks.
We knew that the deathly place we stood in was only a park awaiting Easter transformation.
John Wesley preached his first sermons in the New World in the squares of Savannah, cementing the gospel link between gardens and cemeteries and parks. Today his image, cast in bronze, stands downtown—still pointing those plagued by the fatal human disease of death to eternity. Interestingly, the story of humanity, according to the Bible, begins in a garden, ends in a park-like city, and is focused in between on a cemetery.
John’s gospel brings this to our attention in a powerful manner that I linger with each Easter. John makes certain right at the beginning (note the parallels between Genesis 1 and John 1) that we see the link between God’s creation of the universe as a place where humans share in the divine character and creativity and in the recreation brought about through Jesus when our earth was darkened and dying.
On Easter morning, when Jesus completes his work of sacrificial offering and rises again, gardens and cemeteries are central to the story. Mary laments in the garden, thinking that someone has stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb. Her tear-dimmed eyes do not recognize Jesus when he appears suddenly. She supposes that he must be the gardener.
Only when Jesus calls Mary by name does she come alive from her death-induced grief. We usually think Mary got it wrong when she viewed Jesus as a gardener. But John seems to applaud her insight. Indeed, as John wants us to understand things, only in Jesus has the true Gardener returned to the garden of earth and transformed a dead cemetery into a beautiful park.
When I was first a pastor in southern Alberta, the congregation used to meet in a cemetery on Easter morning for a daybreak celebration of resurrection hope. Surrounded by the stone-carved names, we, the living, met among the dust of our parents and grandparents, and sometimes our sisters and brothers and children. But we knew that the deathly place we stood in was only a park awaiting Easter transformation—a garden expecting the return of the Gardener.