It was at Easter in the 1970’s that I first met my wife. I received a phone call from the local convent asking me to drive three Dominican sisters and their friend to Heathrow. It was at the last minute so I had no time to change out of my working clothes. The three nuns sat in the back seat and their friend, a young doctor who was working in a hospital next to their convent in KwaZulu, South Africa, sat in the front seat next to me. When she finished talking to her friends she finally deigned to look at me and asked me whether or not I was the gardener! When I said that I was not the first person to have been mistaken for the gardener, she carried on talking to her friends unaware of my reference to Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus immediately after the Resurrection. In fact it was only last Easter when I reminded her of our first meeting and how I replied to her question that, after almost forty years she finally picked up on my reference to Mary Magdalene.
However the point I want to make is how did Mary Magdalene mistake Christ for the gardener; after all she had known him so well? The truth is he had risen from the dead to become a different person, or rather the same person, but significantly different from the man who had only recently been preaching and teaching the Gospel only a few days before he was crucified.
The key to the difference is in the message that he preached. God, he proclaimed, is not just infinite love but infinite loving. When he created us he created us out of love, in love, and for love – his love – and for all eternity. When we say that he created us in his image and likeness, we mean that it is God’s love that is deepest in us, despite what nature and nurture has done to distort it. When least distorted, it mirrors that love, not only in the depth of our spiritual being, but also in our physical appearance too. It is this love that attracts men and women to each other. Without them fully realising it they are both drawn onwards and inwards through the physical to infinite love, as it resides deep down in its human embodiment. That is why it is the most powerful force on earth. Nevertheless the love of God, whether it is realised in its fulness in God himself or partially in those he has created, is ultimately a mystery. I will not therefore try to define it as no one will ever be able to do so. This is not because it is irrational, but because it is supra-rational. Nor does Jesus try to define love . He does something that is far more important. If I may paraphrase the Imitation of Christ, “I would far rather know how to experience God’s love than know how to define it.” That is precisely what he came to do for us, namely to show us how to come to experience it.
Most of us firstly come to know and experience God’s love as it is partially embodied in another human being. Although that love is indeed embodied in the man or woman to whom we have given our life in marriage, that love can only be accessed for any length of time through the continual practice of selfless giving. It is this that not only opens us to receive the love of God embodied in our wife or husband, or anyone else for that matter, but it does something further, not just for us, but for the one we are reaching out to with love. It actually recharges their love with our love, or to be more precise, with our weak human love suffused with, and surcharged by the divine that dwells within us. If this selfless giving stops, then we no longer have access to God’s love through our married partners, and the love implanted in both begins to wither and so therefore does the marriage.
Gordan Brown was once asked whether or not he knew what love is by an irate reporter annoyed that his political question remained unanswered, so he wished to catch him out. With uncharacteristic speed and brevity he answered, “It is when someone else’s happiness becomes more important than your own.”
When I was trying to develop these ideas in a talk that I was giving some years ago, a man put his hand up to ask a question. “If all this is so important,” he said, “Why did Jesus not get married himself, to preach to us by the example of his own life?” The question took me by surprise and whilst I was searching for an answer to satisfy him, a girl, the youngest person in the room shouted out. “Because he was already married, silly.” It was of course a brilliant answer, not because it was so simple and clear, but because it was the truth, as the girl went on to say, “Because he was married to God, wasn’t he?” Remember what Jesus said at the Last Supper :- “You must believe me when I tell you that I am in the Father and the Father is in me”( John 14:14-15). If this is not a marriage what is?
It was because of this marriage, called by theologians the hypostatic union that Jesus spent every moment of every day doing everything in his power ‘to make God happy’ by selflessly doing what God wanted him to do. Doing this was what he called his ‘meat and drink’. It was this that gave him life and fulfillment, but it also meant giving that life up in the most horrifying and hideous way imaginable. This only became possible because as he gave, he also received, the “height and depth and length and breadth of God’s love” that made even the impossible possible.
Nevertheless all this took its toll on his human nature as the day of his ultimate ordeal approached, and this would have shown in his demeanour, in his posture, in his body language, and in all he said and did. However, the moment he died was the moment when, as St John tells us, he was flooded by God’s love, through his divine nature, appearing as a new man who was hardly recognisable. That is why Mary Magdalene did not recognise him, nor did the disciples who met him on the road to Emmaus, and for that matter the Apostles, who saw him cooking their breakfast on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. Love had made him himself again, calm and serene in all he said and did once the terrible ordeal was behind him and he could look forward to sharing the love he had received with everyone else. However, it was not just his demeanour that had changed, the very nature of his physical body had changed too by the massive inflow of infinite love that he received at his Resurrection. A body once limited by space and time was limited no longer. He could mysteriously appear and disappear, be in two places at once, pass through locked doors or thick walls and what was even more incredible, enter into his devoted followers and remain with them forever.
We too can be changed by love, the love of God that many of us can encounter through the one we have chosen to love for life. When, last Easter, my wife finally realised what I was getting at when she mistook me for the gardener, I managed to get a smile, after all she has become used to my rather wry sense of humour over the last thirty years or more. But thank God we have never become used to the love that binds us together and binds us ever more closely together with each passing year. It grows through death and resurrection, the daily death and resurrection of giving and receiving, come hell or high water, when dark nights descend upon us and clouds of unknowing distort our vision. Because we know for sure that as long as we keep giving, as Christ himself did, we too will come to share in the fruits of his Resurrection. This will not only happen in this life, but in the next life too, as the love we have encountered partially through each other will be experienced in full, in, with and through Christ who will take us both with him to the ultimate marriage when the love of God will be for all, the All in all.
The themes in this article are developed in David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics