Today … Paradise.
Even though our winter was mild this year, spring always seems delayed. The cold … a brief warming … cold again. It makes one ache for spring. But spring is finally here and I’m glad. The ground has warmed and the grass has greened. My family and I spent some time last week turning the soil in our garden beds and planting vegetable seeds, confident now that we are on our way away from frosty nights toward warmer days. Our bluebird house has four light blue eggs in it, and the morning song of the birds has returned. Everywhere is burgeoning with life.
So what does all of this have to do with today–a day about death…a day of darkness and despair…a day of pain and sorrow…a day when the only tree to speak of is the barren tree of the cross and the only plant is the fiery bramble of thorns plaited into a horrid crown on Jesus’ brow? Why am I talking about gardening, growing things, and life? I too find it odd, even inappropriate, but it’s Jesus, not me, who introduces the topic.
“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise–a strange word to be sure. When we hear the word today, we usually think of Hawaii or a tropical beach with lounge seating and pina coladas. But the word “paradise,” which comes to us from ancient Persia, originally signified an enclosed park or garden. So why does Jesus speak of exotic green gardens and lush parks, even as he and the criminal hang on cruel gallows, gasping for breath? Perhaps the pain and dehydration was too much and Jesus was beginning to fall into delirium. Or perhaps he was was simply giving the thief a picture to hold on to in the midst of his torment, a positive image to distract him from the horror of crucifixion and death. Or perhaps … perhaps he was promising something more … something real … something even more real than the agony of that day. “Today, you will be with me … in Paradise!”
In the beginning … there was a garden. Planted by God, the garden was the home of humanity–filled with the beauty of life and love, a bright country, safe and sure, guarded by God– a perfect Paradise. But soon–too soon–it would be Paradise Lost … a distant memory of what once was and a painful reminder that without God, Eden would remain empty. Yes, Paradise was lost but never forgotten. Throughout the Old Testament there is a longing for the garden of God. The psalms pine for a land richly watered by the river of God, the prophets look for the wilderness to bloom and the dry desert to flourish with the crocus and the lily, and the deepest desire of the bridegroom in the Song of Songs is for his love described as a “garden locked…a spring enclosed, a fountain sealed … an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all choice spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.”
More than just a pretty picture painted on a dark day, Jesus promises the deepest desire and longing of God’s people, indeed, of all creation. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Really–today? Today when nails pierce and spear stabs, today when death reigns over the just and unjust alike, today when sin saturates the scaffold of the cross–today, is a day for Paradise?
Yes, indeed. Today marks the death of the old and the promise of something new. Today Jesus tears into the dismal dirt and turns its dead soil upside down. Today Jesus sows the seed of his body to die in the dust so that it might then break through the earth and bear fruit–10, 50, 100 fold. Today Jesus prepares the ground for Paradise found–a new creation, new life, a new garden–all through his death, his suffering, his burial, … and his Easter resurrection.
What sweet comfort this sentence must have been to the dying thief. What wondrous consolation it is to us all. That the death of Jesus today brings the birth of Paradise and the return of our life with God–“Today, you will be with me in Paradise.
In the book, The Secret Garden, there is a similar moment when the sickly, selfish boy, Collin, throws one of his terrific temper tantrums–howling and flailing on his bed, convinced that he is deformed and destined for death. But the girl Mary attends to him. She was selfish and sallow too, but everything had changed for her because she had found a hidden secret garden. And so Colin, exhausted and frightened begged Mary to tell him about the garden:
“Oh, Mary!” he said. “Oh, Mary! If I could get into the garden I think I should live to grow up! Do you suppose that instead of singing the Ayah song-you could just tell me softly as you did that first day what you imagine it looks like inside? I am sure it will make me go to sleep.”
“Yes,” answered Mary. “Shut your eyes.”
He closed his eyes and lay quite still and she held his hand and began to speak very slowly and in a very low voice.
“I think it has been left alone so long-that it has grown all into a lovely tangle. I think the roses have climbed and climbed and climbed until they hang from the branches and walls and creep over the ground-almost like a strange gray mist. Some of them have died but many-are alive and when the summer comes there will be curtains and fountains of roses. I think the ground is full of daffodils and snowdrops and lilies and iris working their way out of the dark. Now the spring has begun-perhaps-perhaps-”
“Perhaps they are coming up through the grass-perhaps there are clusters of purple crocuses and gold ones-even now. Perhaps the leaves are beginning to break out and uncurl-and perhaps-the gray is changing and a green gauze veil is creeping-and creeping over-everything. And the birds are coming to look at it-because it is-so safe and still. And perhaps-perhaps-perhaps-” very softly and slowly indeed, “the robin has found a mate-and is building a nest.”
And Colin was asleep.
Mary’s description of the garden is not simply her imagination. She has been there and though seemingly dead, she has already seen the promise of new life within it. And Like Mary, we too have been given a glimpse of the garden of God. Because of Easter, today has been called “good” Friday, a day filled with the promise of Paradise. G.K. Chesterton perhaps said it best:
“On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but of the dawn.”