Princeton University Religious Life

A New Beginning

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 31, 2013
John 20:1-18

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”   The beginning of all that is – formed, fashioned, crafted in love by the Creator to be lovely, to reflect divine love, to have in bearing and essence the simplicity of beauty, grace, holiness – exquisitely the beloved of God.  This is the beginning of the cosmos, told by an extraordinary, ancient poet, retold by one of his descendants, the evangelist John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Christ existing with God before time, before cosmos – the Messiah who is – who is in the primordial darkness, who is in the loveliness of all creation, who is in the hilarity and the hardship of all the world’s experiences right down to this exact moment in the universe of time and eternally beyond; the Messiah who is in the grief of the people who loved him most as they came to honor his corpse.  Christ is in the beginning.

And just when we know we can be certain that the lovely beginning to all that is can only be further corrupted by human greed for status, wealth, and power – after we have put the hope of the universe into the grave – comes the announcement of our long yearning of the new beginning of the universe:  “I have seen the Lord.”  Mary of Magdala makes the declaration to her fellow disciples and to all humanity, then and forever: the universe – all of God’s creation – is begun again.  It is restarted, rebooted.  The cosmos begins again, now with heaven in it.  Now death is not the end.  There is life beyond life. 

From a garden to a gardener – from the garden of our origins as beloved children of God, the divine gardener – to a garden cemetery tended by a gardener who is no gardener.  From the Garden of Eden to the Garden Tomb.  Our first beginning is in a garden of life constructed by God that we – humanity – abuse, corrupt, and lose.  Our second beginning is in a garden of death of our own making that God transforms into the garden of new life, our redemption, all gift, that we can never corrupt or lose, because there is more love in God than sin in us.  You will have noticed that the resurrection of Christ from the dead has not prevented individual persons or societies from sinning, sometimes sinning horrifically.  The new beginning we have in the resurrection of Christ from the dead does not alter our sinfulness, but rather its consequences.  There is more love in God than sin in us.

Mary is the witness to the new cosmos born before her eyes, and she is its first proclaimer.  But it had taken her eyes some moments to adjust – dead men don’t stand before you; gardeners aren’t messiahs; the grave is the end.  These are facts.  The gardener opens her eyes by saying her name.  Our names sound different when they are spoken by someone who loves us very much.  This first occupant of God’s new garden is not named Eve, she is Mary.  “I have called you by name; you are mine,” we read in the Prophet Isaiah.  Mary hears her name pronounced by the one who made her and claims her, and now she knows his name too.

That gardener knows our names as well.  He knows the names on our birth certificates – Donna, John, Dick, Barbara, Tanya, Brittany, Ryan, Alison.  He knows the other names we go by, too – the ones we claim for ourselves or that others give us – stupid, pretty, imposter, smart, loser, nice.  He calls us by the only name we need to remember – “mine.”  If you ever struggle to understand who you are, I hope that this Easter morning will be your new beginning of knowing and believing whose you are.  He calls you “mine.”

What else in you might have a new beginning this Easter?  What would you have reborn, rebooted, or started from scratch?  Is it faith?  Is it belief in the reality of God, of Christ?  Would you shift this faith to the center of your being and have it now to guide and inform all that you do?  Is it love – the very ability to love, or is it love for someone in particular?  Is it hope?  Have the very hard things that come to every life ground your hopes down to a lifeless, useless powder?  Is it meaning and purpose for the minutiae of your days?  Do you yearn for a new beginning to some understanding that your life contributes to something, to something worthy, to goodness?

Perhaps for all of us could come this Easter, a new beginning in how to see – to see all things around us, the simple and the grand, the beautiful and the despicable.  We see what we expect to see.  The man standing in the cemetery works there; he’s not the beloved friend we buried there two days ago.  It stands to reason!  We see what we expect to see.  Perhaps this Easter we can embrace a new beginning in what we expect.  St. Augustine wrote, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.”  The eyes of faith expect and see a real universe in a wholly different way.  If we expect that death is the end - the very end - of life, we will see that everywhere, and every time we note it, we will call it confirmation of every instance in the past.  We will say that the evidence is only accumulating.   We will eventually pronounce it irrefutable.  If we expect that death is but a transition to a new mode or stage of life that admittedly escapes our real comprehension, we will see new life everywhere, and every time we note it, we will call it confirmation of every instance in the past.  We will see what we believe – resurrection - new life in the persons we thought were lost to us - a new heaven and a new earth, always in the making before our very eyes.  We will see the reign of God breaking into our every day lives, our world.  We will live bombarded still with the world’s suffering, and with great challenges to ourselves and to those we love.  But we will see another, parallel truth to all that happens – we will see Christ at work in the redemption of all things.  We will see glimpses of grace and hope working among the ashes.  We see the peacemakers, we see the oppressed who refuse to hate in return, we see all who answer violence with love, mercy, integrity.  We expect this and so we see it.  We expect and we see the love of God at work against our sin, moving humanity forward, so slowly.  Despots have their victories, but for a short time only.  The reign of God is indomitable; it seeps into all things.  We see it.  We know we do.  We see what we expect.  Observing the same situation, others see despots and diseases thriving in a universe that apparently is theirs.  We see what we expect.

Let us expect, and therefore see, the grace, the love, the presence of God and Christ in all things, this Easter and onward.  No thing we encounter is too small to be suffused with their presence, with the holy, and no person is too mean – not if we expect otherwise.  In a few minutes, we will celebrate together the ritual of Holy Communion, in which we experience the presence of Christ entering into even us.  The cups that we will use, that will hold the wine, were once a gift to the Chapel from the Class of 1884.  They weren’t given to this chapel, but rather to its predecessor, the Marquand Chapel, which stood until 1920 in what is now the courtyard next door.  In 1920, the first Dickinson Hall caught fire from a lightning strike, and the flames jumped to the roof of the Marquand Chapel.  The fire was slow, but it was comprehensive, turning both buildings to rubble.  While the Chapel burned, students rushed in to save what they could [any of my colleagues from the University’s Risk Management office here can shut their ears for a moment now!].  Students saved their communion chalices.  They saved the vessels that, to them, held the very presence of Christ, vessels given in faith by those students who had gone before them, now a gift that through their own risk-taking could become their inheritance to those of us who would come after them.  Buildings burn, loot is saved – if that’s what you expect.  A gaudy goblet is a gaudy goblet.  Or buildings burn; chalices are saved in acts of faith, gratitude, and hope.  The cups we will touch this morning with our lips, our hands, our pieces of bread, are vessels of love from those who went before us who hoped that we, too, might have the life that really is life, that we would know the joy of faith in good times and bad, and that we would teach one another, and those who come after us, to expect and to see our new beginning in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our own Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live… one is as though nothing is a miracle… the other is as if everything is.”  Friends, on this Easter morning and always, let us heed God’s invitation to expect, and thus to see, miracles everywhere.  Let us not see a grave that has been pillaged while cemetery staff stands by dissolute, let us see the miracle of an emptied tomb, whose occupant God has raised and who now calls us by name.  Resurrection day is the new beginning of the universe and so it can be for us, if we will let the message of resurrection lift us out of ourselves and into God’s vast unknown.

Happy Easter.


Sermon School Year: