given by Crook minister Ray Anglesea, Easter 2018
Those of you who are keen gardeners may have followed the recent BBC2 series of Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens. The highly acclaimed garden programme full of extravagant colour explores the astonishing beauty of many Islamic paradise gardens from Iran, Turkey, India, Spain and Morocco. Monty tells us about key features of Islamic gardens: water to reflect stars and architecture; the number four, into which spaces are often divided to represent the four elements, the four seasons, and the four rivers of paradise flowing with water, milk, honey and wine
Monty’s journey around the great Islamic paradise gardens began in southern Spain (where presumably he’s known as Don Monty?). In Seville, he finds the heady scent of orange blossom and abundant fruitfulness of thousands of orange trees brought to Seville by the Arabs. I remember a recent holiday to Seville visiting the Royal Palace of Seville, the Alcazar, renowned as one of the most beautiful in Spain, the oldest royal palace in Europe with its loggia, a platform, an elevated walkway from which to admire the beautiful gardens with its fruit trees, horticultural produce and a wide variety of fragrant flowers. The garden-orchards not only supplied food for the palace residents but had the aesthetic function of bringing pleasure. Water was ever present in the form of irrigation channels, runnels, jets, ponds and pools.
My wife and I have spent the last two weeks in what seemed a garden of paradise on the Island of St Lucia, The Sugar Beach Hotel set in lush tropical gardens located in a World Heritage Site, waving palm trees, white sand, shimmering turquoise sea. A haven for birds and insects the hotel paths wind their way through the extensive garden amongst flowering bushes and shrubs – sweet smelling jasmines, hibiscus, bougainvillea, ixora, anthurium, balisier – planted around and beneath taller existing trees of ferns and banana plants, coconut, cocoa, nutmeg, and vanilla. With a shimmering turquoise sea, waving palm trees and white sands it was quite simply a haven of beauty, Paradise.
At a funeral service in chapel not long after Easter 2016, a young daughter in a moving and poignant letter to her deceased mother mentioned the word “paradise.” Into a garden on that first Easter morning steps Mary. At the start of the bible there is a man and a woman in a garden, Adam and Eve. And now here, on Easter morning, Jesus meets Mary Magdalene, a man meets a woman, in a garden. Remember Monty’s TV programme – the Arabic word for Garden is paradise. Here, in this garden of the resurrection, in the meeting of this man and woman, the beginning and end of all things meet. The resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate today is the end of the beginning and it’s the beginning of the end. It’s the central moment of history. On this central event hangs the fundamental core of our faith. This is what we believe, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Remember too what Jesus said to the dying thief on the cross – some of his final words – today you will be with me in Paradise. What a wonderful promise Jesus gives the believing thief: presence with Christ in paradise!
But need we wait that long I wonder? If the spirit of the Risen Christ given to us at Pentecost, at our baptisms, lives in our hearts through faith can we not experience a glimpse of what paradise might feel and look like for us today. For sure Paradise is a place of enormous beauty; the beauty of paradise can be overwhelming. Perhaps we needn’t go too far to find it, perhaps in our own beautiful Weardale, the rugged Pennines, with its wild landscapes, moors and rivers. For it is in these moments, wherever paradise is for us, you see and feel the Presence of God. You sense that God has left his footprints. You can see the creativity of God. You can see God, the artist, having been at work; God used gently colours when God painted the familiar Weardale Spring flowers, with which we shall later decorate our chapel cross.
The other thing for sure is that you want to share paradise with another person you love. You want another human being to be with you in paradise, someone you love and can share paradise with. In paradise, there is a momentary absence of conflict, pain, and evil. But above all, in paradise, your heart is filled with thanksgiving and praise to God, not just for the sheer beauty of the world and someone to share it with but for the joy that fills our hearts this morning, the joy of knowing Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and the new life that he brings to us and to the earth.
Today, this Easter morning we celebrate the idea of Paradise, and renew all that we have been given – our family, our church, our friends – always mindful of that great company of all ages who are already in Paradise who we no longer see yet remember with love and affection.