Christ the Gardener: Reflections on a Summer in Turkey

“Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.””

— John 20:11-18


This summer, I lived in Istanbul, Turkey, doing research and exploring the old Christian sites in the country. Turkey has thousands of years of Christian history hiding within its borders, and the country contains some of the oldest Christian sites in the world, from the Hagia Sophia to the House of Mary in Ephesus. More often than not though, these places have become popular tourist sites rather than holy places for worship. This disposition toward Christian religious sites became a theme for the rest of my summer as we continued to encounter churches that were left either crumbling or turned into tourist sites, and I struggled to reconcile this situation with my experience of Christianity throughout my life in America, where churches have always been both sacred and physically present in my life. They have stood in my mind as the places where one worships Jesus for as long as I can remember, but this summer the constancy of such places was not a given, providing ample time to reflect on where the real power of a church lies in the Christian life.

I could not wait to discover and see the churches in Turkey with my own eyes. Most of my attempts to see the churches in their fullness, however, were frustrated by a series of restoration projects, fences, and tourist sites. The major churches in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church, are both museums and popular tourist sites. I found the same to be true for the remaining churches out in the country. If the church was in any way historically significant, it became crowded, distracting, and expensive, or was simply left untouched, surrounded by a large metal construction wall. While initially these frustrations were not too terribly disappointing, as the summer wore on I ran into more and more restoration projects and tourist sites that distracted from the religious space of the church. 

Perhaps the most striking experience was on a cool foggy day my last weekend in Turkey. I visited a mountain in eastern Turkey that had a monastery carved into the cliff face at the top—a popular visit for tourists. As we began our long ascent, I could not help but think of Moses on Mount Sinai, and by the time we reached the top, the fog around the monastery was so thick that you could not see in either direction. Suddenly, the all-too- familiar sounds of hammers and drills filled my ears, and I peeked over plywood barriers to see a jungle of metal bars covering the clearly visible chapel of this monastery. Here we were, watching yet another ancient Christian site turn into a tourist attraction. I stood there stunned for a long time, then turned and walked back down the mountain. No revelations today, just another construction wall.

While struggling to think about these ambiguously de-sanctified religious spaces, it was hard not to become apocalyptic about the future of Christianity. If churches could simply disappear like this, how am I, a Christian, supposed to worship? What if this happened in America? 

It was at this somewhat sobering stage in my thoughts when the moment in the garden, quoted above, came to mind. Almost all the Christian churches in Turkey have their own gardens around the buildings. In some ways a cultural norm, these gardens serve varying purposes, some to make the church more scenic or lucrative, but all of them are peaceful. While they do not reflect the grandeur that a functional church would have, many of these gardens are kept up by Christians if they were still around a functioning church. I was provoked by these gardens, remembering Mary’s words to the as yet unidentified gardener: “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.”

 I imagine that there was anger in Mary’s voice as she sat there bewildered in the garden. She had watched Jesus suffer through the Passion, and the Crucifixion, and now she could not even tend to his body. Naturally, she would be frustrated if not despairing, and the gardener was probably the last person she wanted to see. After visiting the mountain monastery, I felt a similar, strange mixture of confusion, resignation, and anger to the situation. So much of my life experience was centered around the constant presence of a church, but here there was no church, and I was simply watching the remnants of my faith disappear.

However, like Mary looking at the gardener, I was not quite seeing the picture clearly. My frustration was more due to my own problematic understanding of a church space than it was due to the construction wall in front of me. I realized that I had come to think about church spaces as fundamentally limited things, and about Christ himself as a warlord, not a gardener. I thought that a church building was the only place where one could properly show reverence to God and failed to look closely for Christ as a result. All I saw was a broken church, and by extension, a broken faith.

The ancient Israelites expected the Messiah to be a conquering warlord who would finally beat the Romans and reestablish God’s chosen people as rulers of the world. In the same way, every time I saw a church behind a construction wall I thought that it was an injustice and if only Christ would show up and kick everyone else out then we could treat this church building like it was meant to be treated. But instead of this warlord figure, the Israelites got a man who died on a cross. Christ came to save the world rather than beat the Romans, so instead of a grand functioning church, I saw a lowly garden.

On the way down from the monastery, I became aware of how much of the Christian life is spent in the same moment as Mary in the garden. Mary is looking at the resurrected Christ, who has won his triumphant victory over death. The world at this moment is fundamentally changed, but Mary, in a moment of frustration and grief, only sees the gardener. Most of our day-to-day life though is spent wondering, often in frustration, “Where have they taken my Lord?” whether this be in small town Michigan or the crowded Cappadocian monasteries in Turkey. It is hard to see practically that the world is eternally different because of the reality of the Resurrection. For most of us, it takes work to say, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

This recognition that Christ’s life in the world is not about conquering, but is in fact about the salvation of the world, changed how I thought about walking around not only in Turkey, but even once I got home to America. The role of the Christian in the world is to look at the world and learn, like Mary did, to see Christ in the garden. The world often appears frustrating and can arouse anger in moments of passion: moments which seem to call for a warlord. But Christ appeared to Mary as a gardener, not a warlord. In the same way, the churches in Turkey did not appear as the triumph of early Christianity, but the quiet presence of a garden. The gardener and his garden serve as a quiet reminder of the persistence of Christianity, in a way that tends to the culture around it. This persistence drastically changes how a church building itself functions. The presence of a functioning church building should not restrict the ability to worship because a church building serves to reveal what is already all around us in the world after the Resurrection. A church is not restrictive of Christ’s presence in the world but rather a reflection of what the world already is, and as distracting as the church/tourist environment may be in Turkey, it is not a cause to despair over the future of Christianity. The persistence of Christ as a lowly gardener reassures us that the world is under his care and governance.

Dietrich is a senior studying English and mathematics.

Photograph contributed by Cait Weighner.