THE WOMAN, THE HOUR, AND THE GARDEN: A Study of the Imagery of the Gospel of John. By Addison Hodges Hart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. X + 113 pages.
Among progressive/liberal Christians there is strong preference for the Synoptic Gospels. John is often set aside because it seems more other-worldly than the Synoptics. Of course, the Synoptics have parables, while John has speeches. The Synoptics have miracles, John has Signs (even if they’re miraculous events they seem to give off a different sensibility. Because John seems rather mystical in orientation, it doesn’t lend itself to quests for the historical Jesus. Nonetheless, John offers us great riches if we're willing to engage the Gospel on John’s own terms.
One who embraces John’s mystical side is Addison Hodges Hart. Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain. This is the third book by Hart that I’ve read, and from these books I have gleaned a sense of Hart’s interest in the mystical side of things. At the same time, he wants to be grounded in scripture and tradition, including Origen!
In this particular book Hart lifts up the image of "The Woman" in John. He does this in words, but also by the use of the art work of medieval artist Albrecht Dürer. His reasons for choosing Dürer’s engravings have something to do with their linkage to his reflections, but also, as he suggests the artist’s place in time—being present at the intersection of Medieval and Renaissance periods. He notes that the artist was a “Christian Humanist in the mode of Erasmus, a lifelong Catholic, an admirer of Luther (notwithstanding his own Catholicism), a progressive thinker in his day, and possessed of (in Giorgio Vasari’s words) an ‘extravagant imagination’” (pp. ix-x). It was this deep imagination of the artist helps move the book along, for Hart suggests that John himself had an “extravagant imagination.”
As the title suggests Hart is interested in three images that occur in the Gospel of John, with primary focus on the way John’s Jesus uses the title “Woman” when speaking to three specific women. These include his mother, whom he addresses in this way at the wedding at Cana and then again as he is dying on the cross, where he directed the Beloved Disciple to care for his mother. The second person addressed in this way is Mary Magdalene, who is addressed in this fashion by Jesus on the Day of Resurrection. Finally, Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman with this title when he meets her at the well. While all three women receive attention, he is most concerned with the way in which Jesus addresses his mother, and how that speaks to our own relationship with Jesus.
The second image is that of the “hour.” Remember that Jesus told his mother at Cana that his “hour” had not yet arrived. The third word is that of the Garden. Hart spends one chapter exploring the connection of John’s placement of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in a garden with Eden. It is in the context of the crucifixion in the Garden that Jesus speaks to his mother and to the Beloved Disciple, with John noting that from that “hour” the disciple took her into his home. Thus the three terms/images appear in one place. The placement of these conversations leads Hart to construct the idea that for John “the Woman” is an archetype. Most specifically an archetype of the church, who is, in John’s terms at times understood to be Christ’s bride. Furthermore, Hart notes that in the Greek translation of Genesis 2, Adam names his wife Zoe, which is Greek for life. So Hart raises the question: Might we suppose, then, that any time the word zoe—meaning for them ‘eternal life’—appeared in the shared writings of their community’s founding apostle, read in the context of liturgy and their assemblies, the hearers would also have heard and recalled ‘Zoe,’ the name given to the first woman by Adam?” (p. 81).
Hart takes a mythopoetic/allegorical approach to the text of John. He explores the way in which these three women exemplify theological visions including life and death and the church. With regard to the women, especially Jesus’ mother, being icons of the church, Hart weaves through the book the imagery found in John 16:21, where Jesus declares "When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought human being into the world." Although most translations lack the definite article, Hart suggests that it is best read with a definite article. Thus, it's not "a woman" but "the woman." This "woman" is an archetype for the church, who experiences travail/suffering, but when she bears her child (the body of Christ) there is great joy. Note the presence of the word “hour” and human being/man (Anthropos). Another element of the story is found in John 2, where Jesus’ mother directs the servants to obey Jesus, even though Jesus tells his mother, whom addresses as Woman, that his hour had not yet come. What the words at Cana reveal, however, is the way to eternal life, which comes through belief. Belief is expressed as obedience to Christ. There is no distinction between faith and obedience.
This is a most interesting and thought-provoking book. My own Mariology is less robust than Hart's. I'm also a bit less comfortable with the marriage imagery for Jesus and the church, especially if his mother is an icon of the church. Still, there is much here to contemplate. Most importantly, Hart invites us to read John in a way that is appropriate to John’s own vision. There is a place for the literal, but also for the allegorical. The Reformation may have set aside the non-literal for good reason, but especially when it comes to reading John we need to release our imaginations so as to discover the meaning below the words. While Hart recognizes the presence of historical detail in John, it is important see the deeper vision that is present in this text, so that we might experience the abundance that is eternal life.
While the book is brief, it is also deep and spiritually rewarding. Thus, worth exploring!