Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Garden of Naming

Perhaps the most powerful thing in the world that anyone can ever do is to name something. To choose a word to sum up. With a few syllables, names can stick, they can both describe and determine identities.
Think how powerful these words can be: Beautiful. Hero. Messiah.
Ugly. Failure. Disappointment.

In the Old Testament, names were incredibly important, and a change of name marked a change of identity. Abram became Abraham. Jacob became Israel. God, while having many names and characteristics in the Bible, is usually referred to by modern Jews as “Ha-shem”, The Name. God’s name is considered by them as too holy to say. Maybe they grasp a truth that Christians don’t…

In the Garden of Eden, the first man Adam was given the job of naming the all animals. Whatever he called them, that was its name. Its identity. As God had created Adam and had named him, now Adam was doing the same. This is a powerful image, Adam fulfilling his destiny as a lord over the earth and co-creator with God. (Check out my previous blog "Red" for more analysis on the meaning behind Adam's name).

Maybe it has something to do with gardening. Recently, I think I’ve finally begun to understand its allure. I had never cared much about tending to plants before, and tasks like weeding and watering seemed dull and pointless. Why grow plants for beauty? Or even food (which I’ve yet to attempt)? It always seemed too much effort, for little gain.

But I’ve revised my opinion lately. I have had more free time this summer, and I’ve surprised myself by willingly going out to clear weeds, trim back plants, mow grass, etc. I’ve found I enjoy seeing the results of my work, being outside, and being in touch with nature. I don’t understand exactly why this joy exists. But it fits in with what it seems human existence is about: it’s part of that co-creating for which the original humans were created.

Now, if the connection I made between naming and gardening were an isolated connection, you could write me off (you always can, actually). But I see at least two other examples in the Bible where these two meet. At the end of the book of John, we find Mary Magdalene weeping in front of Jesus’ empty tomb, wondering where his body is. Once again, we’re in a garden. Jesus comes behind her and asks her what’s wrong. She thinks he is the gardener. Jesus calls her by name, saying, “Mary.” And that’s all that’s required for her to realize that he’s Jesus. In shock and in joy, Mary replies in her own language of Aramaic, “My teacher!”

Are you getting this symbolism? It blew me away when I saw it. Jesus is the “new Adam” the firstborn of a new race of humans: those who are perfect, forgiven, and who have eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). So where do we see this new Adam? In a garden, of course! And what is the first thing this new Adam does? He calls Mary by name, and she responds. I can imagine him saying it full of love, and Mary rushing to embrace him. Thus God’s new order begins, as the first one did, in a Garden of Naming.
Jesus' empty tomb, which was in the midst of a garden owned by Joseph of Arimethea
But this is just the beginning. The garden motif is consummated in the prophetic book of Revelation, which describes the final destruction of evil and the marriage of heaven and earth. In the last chapter the author of Revelation describes the ultimate city of God, where He lives with all of his people on Earth. This eternal paradise has a river, fruit trees, and a tree of life. Sound familiar? That’s because this is the same description as for the Garden of Eden. Eden has finally returned, it’s back, and it’s been completely redeemed from sin. And guess what? Every single person in this city of New Jerusalem has the name of God on his or her forehead (22:4). Their identity can only be described by using the name of God. They are now considered full children of God, bearing his name.

So there’s something special in the Bible about gardening and names and identity. The connections are tough to unravel, but they’re lively, interesting, and beautiful.  

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