Making All Things New: Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (April 16, 2023)
The season of Easter is rich in beautiful symbolism. After the visual austerity of Lent, in which there were no decorations in the church, and eventually even the statues and Crosses were covered when we began Passiontide, the Church bursts forth with a profusion of beauty – both employing the beauty of the natural world and the richness of Christian symbolism to bring joy to our hearts, so that we might live these new forty days of celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection in imitation of the Apostolic community we heard about in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles: “They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.”
If you were at the 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. Masses last Sunday, you heard me say some disparaging things about the “Hallmark Easter” with its pastels, flowers, and eggs. I was rather frustrated about going to the store to buy Easter cards and not finding a single one that referred to the Lord’s Resurrection! But rather than just writing off the connection between the new life of the resurrected Christ and the new life of the natural world in spring, we would do even better to re-claim the rich Christian symbolism that inspires our appreciation of lilies, tulips, and much more.
The lily features prominently in the Scriptures. The prophet Hosea says that when Israel is restored she will “blossom like the lily.” The columns of the Temple of Solomon were crowned with capitals carved in the shape of lilies. And of course, the Lord reminds us that the lilies of the field are arrayed in even more splendor than the great king Solomon. Christian traditions hold that lilies sprung up in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary in the places where our Lord’s precious blood and tears fell upon the ground. The lily also represents purity and is often a symbol of the Blessed Virgin. In depictions of Her Annunciation, Gabriel is frequently holding lilies as he gives Her the good news of God’s plan for Her. The lily also fittingly symbolizes the Resurrection because its flowers open in the shape of trumpets, recalling the horns that heralded the Resurrection, and of course the bulbs grow underground before rising to produce their beautiful flowers.
The iris resembles the lily, but in the shape of a sword. It recalls the prophecy of Simeon that a sword would pierce the Blessed Virgin’s heart, fulfilled on the bitter road to Calvary. But just as Christ’s sufferings brought new life, so Her sorrow was transformed into joy on Easter, as She was sustained by the hope that She alone among mortals maintained that the Cross was not the end.
It is little surprise that most people find the most touching scene in The Passion of the Christ to be the encounter between Christ and His Mother. As He falls under the weight of the Cross, She recalls Him falling as a little child and runs to Him. The most impressive part of this scene, though, is what Christ says to Her as She touches His bloody face. In what must be at the same time the most creative and the most theologically profound original move ever made in a film about Christ, the film borrows a line from the Book of Revelation: “See, Mother, I make all things new.”
This is precisely what Christ does when He invites Thomas to place his finger in the wounds and his hand in His side. Behold, my son, my beloved fried, I make all things new. I take your doubts, fears, hesitancies, and sins, and I make them new.
I was reminded of the power and beauty of that pivotal scene from The Passion by a young father of ten, three of whose children suffer from an extremely rare and incurable disease that regularly has him sitting by their besides in the ICU. He found himself doing just that in Paris last month. They made it out of the hospital just in time to do the very thing for which they had come, because on the first Friday of the month, in Paris, the Crown of Thorns, brought to France by St. Louis IX, is still exposed for the veneration of the faithful. So after yet another scrape with death, after watching one of their children suffer once again, they brought their family to kiss the instrument of torture that pierced our Lord’s sacred flesh and became for Him truly a crown: Behold, my children, I make all things new.
The greatest Christian symbol of the Resurrection is the Paschal Candle, on which each year this theme, making all things new, is inscribed. Each year we commission a new Paschal Candle from an artist named Gina Switzer, who paints the beautiful designs on the candle by hand. The theme she chose this year is “Paradise Restored.” From the Cross, the tree of life, upon whom the Enemy who conquered on a tree is now likewise on a tree conquered, springs a verdant garden – the new Paradise, in which the old is restored and redeemed. The theme of the Garden of Paradise Restored recalls another legend concerning the lily: that they first sprang up where Eve’s repentant tears watered the earth.
Gina’s design includes the anemone, originally a pagan symbol of sorrow and death transformed into a symbol of Christ’s Passion, with the red spots on its leaves representing the blood dripping from His body on the Cross. Also present is the poppy, associated with the Passion because of its causing sleep and even death and its blood-red color. The strawberry represents the righteous man and his fruits. The rose, for the ancient Romans, represented victory and triumphant love. According to St. Ambrose, in the Garden before the Fall, the rose grew without thorns. And so the symbol of fallen nature, the thorn, now becomes a source of life and even a crown. Behold, I make all things new.
To these traditional floral symbols of Christ, Gina added an innovation of a flower from her own garden: the red dahlia, whose eight leaves remind us of the new day, the eighth day, upon which Christ rose from the dead and made all things new.
“The center of the Cross, the Heart if you will, is a ruby surrounded by pearls set in gold. The ruby has a long history in art of representing the heart and blood of Christ. The refined stone symbolizes the blood of Christ transformed into a gem by the Resurrection and Ascension. The pearls surrounding the ruby along with the alpha/omega are the Saints who sold everything to purchase the pearl of great price. The Saints united themselves to Christ on the Cross and they now enjoy the bliss of Paradise, life with Christ eternally.”
Within the beautiful representation of the Restored Garden of Paradise are the grains of incense that represent the five holy and glorious wounds of Christ. These are made from the incense we use at St. John’s during the Easter season, which is made by Benedictine monks in England. Each year I melt some of the incense and form it around small nails to insert into the Paschal Candle at the Vigil. While the incense grains obscure the view of the beautiful garden, they remind us of its purpose.
Christ comes to restore. He does not simply wipe away the old and make something new. He restores what was lost to its original dignity. “In the beginning, it was not so,” He says to remind the Pharisees of the dignity of marriage, but really to all of us about all the sin we see around us and in ourselves: “In the beginning, it was not so.” This is why His body still bears the marks of His passion, so that what looked to be a sign of defeat might become now a great herald of victory. As one of my favorite hymns puts it: “Those dear tokens of his passion / still his dazzling body bears, / cause of endless exultation / to his ransomed worshippers: / with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture, / gaze we on those glorious scars!”
Christ has truly made all things new. As we said on Easter Sunday, the only answer posed by the word of God to the problem of suffering, death, and pain is the Resurrection of Christ – not a solution, but a victory. The beautiful symbolism of Easter reminds us that what is dead in you can be brought to life, and that the most difficult struggles, anxieties, and doubts are the opportunity for Him to make all things new.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Sunday in albis deponendis, A.D. MMXXIII
Image: Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The Incredulity of St. Thomas
Read Gina Switzer’s reflection on this year’s Paschal Candle here: https://www.ginaswitzer.com/paschal-candles-2/exitus-reditus-r89hn-lp3be-t8hpl-dtmk9-79844-9jnz7-awmx3-y3292-r6wz2-fpg5w
Resources for learning about Christian symbolism in art and nature:
Signs and Symbols in Christian Art by George Ferguson
The Vulnerary of Christ by Louis Charbonneau