While I am sitting at my desk writing this, I am chewing an apple. As I look at it, I see few imperfections, a small dark spot close to the bottom, and its globular shape is slightly imbalanced to one side. It’s light green, verging on yellow, with crisp, cream-coloured flesh. I suspect it’s related to something like a Granny Smith, because of the tartness I taste in the first bite, which changes to tangy sweetness as my taste buds learn what to expect.
I picked this apple this morning, in my back yard, from a branch with 20 or so apples, that was grafted onto the mature pear tree sitting between the nascent plum tree and the second apple tree over in the far corner, near the fence.
In the past few years, we’ve been fortunate to rent an apartment that is set on a good chunk of land on the western edge of the city. It’s not as idyllic as it sounds, believe me. We back onto a car dealership turned repo agency and are only a few hundred metres from a major thoroughfare that buzzes with traffic and whelps of car horns throughout the day and night. We’re also directly under the roaring path of passenger planes, so a few times an hour my son is pleased to hear the drone, and in a few seconds, spot the culprit. With an outstretched index finger, he says, “Look, Dad, there’s a plane.” There’s a million planes, son, and they all fly by here every day.
Back to the yard. It’s large enough to have a few beautiful fruit trees, a shed, and some space for a garden. This is my third year planting a garden that’s grown substantially with each installment. We have the obligatory veggies: tomatoes, cucumbers, and a bed of herbs. But other things too: banana, yellow bell, and jalapeno peppers; eggplants, zucchini, radicchio, kale, and Swiss chard; pole beans, watermelons, butternut squash, and beets; peas, arugula, and carrots. It takes me quite some time in the spring, after the frost has burrowed low enough to leave us alone, to set all of this up. Maintenance is easier, and by September I let the weeds live, spending my time harvesting what I want to eat for supper and leaving the rest.
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how,” Jesus said. “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-9).
There’s some wonder in this, and it’s not lost on me, though I’m getting used to the rhythms of growth and decay. Despite their unorthodoxy, Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir, and Annie Dillard led me first to the wonder of the wild, but it was really Wendell Berry who taught me to love the smell of garden dirt, farm manure. That, and getting my hands dirty. And there are those who have taken up his mantle with more substantive theological work, folks like Norman Wirzba and Ellen Davis.
It’s fascinating to me that God in his providence has created the world to be like this. It’s not something I’ve always noticed, not something many of us notice anymore. We take food for granted, especially in large cities, because it is so abstracted from its sources. We know we can slap down $20 we’ve pulled from our raw denim jeans in any number of eateries, and in minutes we have that burrito or burger.
Those who live in smaller places, saner places, know something more of the beautiful solidity of the oracles of God: “I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (Lev. 26:4).
For the rest of us, however, we only have to trace the lines back far enough in our minds, follow the logic back through the laneways by which it has come to see the real. This steak on our table was cut from a side of beef, beef that was once a living, breathing thing, that was raised somewhere, and ate grass, and was nursed, shortly after it was born in the middle of the night in a barn (not wrapped in swaddling like our Saviour, though).
These french fries were hewn from a potato (the humble potato in which God delights, though it grows underground) that was once whole, planted, received rain and sun, and a woman or a man dug it up (somehow).
We seldom remember that if this land, this dirt, fed by sun and rain so graciously, did not continue to produce sustenance for us, we could not exist. We forget that people — real people, aided more or less by machines that other real people have built — take care of this produce for a livelihood that is often very meagre. We seldom remember, too, that without these people doing this noble work we would cease to live, in the most basic and mundane sense.
This alone is a great mystery. I see what is true: “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, sing praises to your name” (Ps. 66:4).
Isn’t it strange that God should have us live this way, breathing life into our lungs, lungs that must be nourished by food and water if they are to continue to respire? God mediates his life to our bodies, made of dust, by that same dust bringing forth roots and nuts that we must eat to live.
This is not all to amaze us, however.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This fruit is then crushed, ground, pulverized; we mix it with water, knead it, and bake it: bread.
It is then taken by hands of dust animated with the breath of life, and elevated at the altar: “This is my body.” It’s blessed and broken.
The body of Christ made from the grain grown in the ground, broken by the dust-body, is once again infused with the Spirit-breath of life.
And I haven’t yet said anything about the wine.
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades’” (Rev. 1:17).
“Alive forever and ever” is the broken bread, held by the dust-hands, passed to the dirt people, chewed by their crooked teeth. “Preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life.” Preserve all of our bodies and souls, we pray.
And all of this is from the Garden.