I offered this reflection during a parish Lenten retreat at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, which explored the various gardens of Scripture, including Eden, Gethsemane, and, here, the garden of the New Creation in the Book of Revelation.
I want to tell you a story about a garden at the end of the world.
Last summer, I was on a trip to the United Kingdom, and after a very long set of flights from Fort Wayne to London, and a train from London to the northern city of Newcastle, and a car from Newcastle to the Northumbrian coast near the border of England and Scotland, I found myself standing on the seashore, looking out towards my final destination: an island just off the mainland, separated by a tidal causeway that is only passable at certain times of day when the seawater does not inundate it. It was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, an ancient seat of Christian monasticism and a pilgrimage site for centuries.
I was still wearing the same clothes I’d put on, many, many hours ago in Indiana, and it was a surreal experience to stand there, bleary eyed, carrying the dust and the baggage of all I’d left behind, and yet to be in the midst of something so luminously, shockingly new.
We crossed the causeway as the sun sank into the North Sea and the skies were every pastel shade imaginable, like ice cream flavors melting together. Rasberry, peach, grape, blueberry, cream. And once we’d arrive to the other side, my companion and I made our way up a grassy embankment, to the top of a ridge overlooking the sea. We had arrived, and we were bathed in color and salt air, and I confess that it felt like the landscapes of heaven one dreams of as a child, before heaven seems a bit harder to imagine.
As we stood among the waving grasses of Lindisfarne, we looked out towards the far side of the island, straining our eyes in the falling dusk. Isn’t it interesting how, whenever we get to the edge of something we still want to see what is even further out? Curiousity, or longing, keeps our eyes on the horizon.
And as we looked, we noticed something that was hard to make out, a low structure of some kind, dark and earthen, out beyond any other buildings or roads. It wasn’t on our map. It was a mystery, and we decided to go out the next day to see what it was, sitting in solitude at the far end of an island at the far end of the earth.
So we set out the next morning, making our way along a path that followed the sea, curving out around the old castle that sits like a sentinel atop a rocky hill on the otherwise gentle landscape of Lindisfarne. And that low, dark thing, whatever it was, was still hard to make out, until we curved around the eastern edge of the island and followed a narrow road that led us closer.
It was not a building at all, in fact, but a set of low stone walls, made of rocks piled on top of one another, moss growing in the cracks between them, delicate sea grasses growing out of the top. And in the center of one wall was a gate. And when we opened the gate…we stepped into a garden.
A garden, sitting in silent, abundant repose, at the end of the earth. And in that garden, on this July afternoon, every color flower imaginable was blooming—red poppies and white daisies and flowers I did not recognize—fuschia and pink and gold and amethyst. And there were bees buzzing around, gathering their pollen, and the sea breeze stirred the plants gently and the air smelled like earth and salt and sweetness and greenness. Like viriditas.
And we just stood there, in awe, marveling that such a beautiful thing could actually exist anywhere, but especially here, out at the end of the world.
In the Revelation to John, we are given a vision of another garden, in another place and time, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is a vision of a garden that is in every place and beyond time. For it is the garden of the New Creation, the garden that is the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem creation and to make it whole. To make it holy.
John writes: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
This vision, the very last one given in the Book of Revelation, and thus the final one in Holy Scripture, is the consummation of God’s promises: that in the end, beyond death, beyond time itself, there will be a garden, there will be life, there will be food and healing and abundance in every season. There will be a garden at the end of the world, and there will be a place for everyone and everything.
It is worth noting that this new garden, this new and eternal revelation of Divine viriditas, is not just a reentry into Eden. We don’t simply end up where our forebears started, as if nothing had happened, as if the millennia of life and death and growth and decay we’ve survived all just folded back on itself into some sort of primordial, unknowing, unremembering dream. Because God cherishes the beauty of all the seasons we have endured. God knows the seeds we have planted, the dreams and the tears and the blood spilled into the soil. God sees all of it, God sees all of you, all of us, and God does not desire to erase but to redeem it, to heal it, to imbue it with an everlasting radiance. To imbue it with viriditas.
So no, we are never going back to Eden. But neither are we stuck forever in Gethsemane, where life and death struggle in their tortured dance. No, in the Garden of the New Creation, we enter into something far better than a new and improved version of the world we know. We enter into the very life of God. We enter into God’s own heart, God’s own home, God’s own viriditas, a place that is not simply a lost paradise reclaimed, but is the very love and life that underlies every notion of paradise.
In the new heave and new earth, we enter into God, who is waiting for us at the end of the world. And according to Scripture, it seems that God looks very much like a garden.
I confess that as we look around the world today, it is hard to hold onto this vision. Our planet is in crisis, and all of us—humanity and plants and animals, rocks, rivers, and seas—all of us are bound together in uncertainty and in pain. So some days it’s hard to imagine a place where there is ever-ripening fruit and balm for every ailment. A place where all creation exists in harmony with itself and its Creator. It is a lovely thought, beyond lovely, but it can feel like a fanciful wish rather than a grounded hope, because we have known so much of hardship for so long.
Loss and death and finitude are so intimately part of our lives; they are big and burdensome yet also familiar, and if I am honest with myself, I can’t imagine life without death, as much as I want to. Sometimes the idea of eternity, even in a beautiful garden, scares me a little. I can’t really understand its unending joy. It’s hard to imagine a world that is not Eden or Gethsemane, a world where the serpent won’t show up again with his temptations, it’s hard to imagine a world where the Cup that we receive will be full of life, with not even a trace of bitterness or loss.
But the Revelation, of course, doesn’t really explain how it all will work. We are given a dream, a promise to trust in. We are given a garden, and the rest is left to our sense of wonder. This vision of the New Creation is not a precise roadmap to eternity, but more of a song, or a poem, or an intuition. A reminder that as we wait, if we seek a foretaste of heaven, we might tend to the earth and help in flourish.
All we can do, here and now, is love the gardens in which we find ourselves, the gardens of the earth as it is: broken yet insistently hopeful; the gardens of our lives as they are: broken yet insistently hopeful. The gardens that remind us of what has been given, what has been lost, what has been promised. All I can do is walk through this earth and notice it, and care for it, and I can walk alongside my neighbor (my human neighbor and all the rest of creation too) and notice them and care for them, and I can trust that my Lord, the unseen gardener and caretaker of us all, is just on the other side of the dense greenery, smiling through the leaves, and that whatever he is planting for that future day, that final harvest, that eternal garden, it will be more beautiful, more whole, more full of connection and love than anything I’ve yet known or imagined.
More so, even, than the gift I found hidden behind those stone walls on the Holy Island, where for one brief summer afternoon, heaven whispered among the poppies and the seagrass, and God was in the green and in the wind and said,
I want to tell you a story about a garden at the end of the world.