Beginnings

by Ben Rawlins Last time I wrote for the Tokens blog, I discussed how art can serve as a token of the resurrection, leading us to see differently everyday experiences. Likewise, interruptions in time also push us to change the way we see our everyday life. A couple of months ago, I heard someone speak eloquently on how the liturgical calendar offers the modern world a different way of conceiving of time. While most people view each day, each minute as the same, the church places profound emphasis on certain days. These holidays serve as holy interruptions to the monotony of time. By participating in these liturgical interruptions, we can begin to view time in a different manner, allowing us to recognize the Divine in our time. In the liturgical calendar, every major holiday seems to be preparing for or celebrating a beginning. During Advent, we wait expectantly for the birth of Christ, which prepares us for the celebration of the incarnation. Lent prepares us for Easter, the ultimate celebration of re-beginning. These liturgical events reveal the significance of beginnings in the Christian life that are only made deeper in other Christian actions.

But, beyond the liturgical calendar, our lives are littered with beginnings. The sun rises each day, we wake up, we begin our lives again. This is a mystery of human life; our life is the same, but each day is new. We begin anew again and again. In the wake of Christmas, we also celebrate New Years, a time to remember the past year, but look forward to the new one. For many of us, we see the New Year as a time to begin something new, whatever resolution we happen to decide upon. The New Year has become a time of fresh beginnings.

As the Christian calendar celebrates beginnings, both the incarnation and the resurrection, we too can view New Years and new beginnings as remnants of these original beginnings. Beginnings, then, are tokens of the resurrection, mirroring Christ’s actions in this world. If we view our beginnings as a token of the resurrection, we can perceive something sacred in our most commonplace activities. It is true that we celebrate the New Year, but do we fully grasp the significance of this beginning? Do we recognize what a gift it is to begin again? Even something as simple as turning the calendar to January means we are involved in a type of resurrection, imitating Christ’s actions in our own lives.

Our celebration of beginnings in the Christian calendar also illuminates that God’s story is one of constant beginnings, of renewal and restoration. Perhaps it is just my perception, but sometimes it seems we view God as one who exists in the past, working in the world only in history. But, God is a God that keeps working, keeps initiating, keeps creating. In “Letters to a Young Poet,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke challenges his reader to view God not as one who could be lost, but one who is in a process of constant beginning: “Why do you not think of [God] as the coming one, imminent from all eternity, the future one, the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into times that are in process of becoming, and living your life like a painful and beautiful day in the history of a great gestation? For do you not see how everything that happens keeps on being a beginning, and it could it not be His beginning, since beginning is in itself always so beautiful?”[1] Rilke’s statement is a call to envision God as existing in a constant present, one who transcends our conceptions of Him as in the past. Our lives, our beginnings, are a participation in God’s perpetual beginning. As we wake each morning, we participate in God’s first act of beginning—creation—and God’s continued act of creating. To see ourselves as participants in an eternal beginning will move us to see our lives differently, allow us to see tokens of resurrection in our own beginnings. In this way, too, Jesus’ resurrection is a reflection of God’s narrative of perpetual beginnings.

Yet, beginnings are not always easy. As we approach a new year, we realize that worries and troubles from the past year will not go away. Irish writer John O’Donohue says, “Sometimes the greatest challenge is to actually begin; there is something deep in us that conspires with what wants to remain within safe boundaries and stay the same.”[2] But, if we view our beginnings as participation in the divine narrative of constant beginnings, we can see that God may have more beauty, more love, more faith for us than we could ever expect. O’Donohue writes of beginnings as an “invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us.”[3] A beginning is an opportunity to engage with a token of the resurrection.

As we begin a New Year, I hope we can view beginnings as invitations, not challenges. I hope that we can look at beginnings as a token of the resurrection. If we do so, we can take seriously Wendell Berry’s call to “practice resurrection.”[4]

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[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, (New York: Norton, 1954), 38. 

[2] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 3.

[3] O’Donohue, 2.

[4] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Ben Rawlins is a Tokens Blog contributor and an MTS student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Origianally from Kansas, Ben never thought he would go to divinity school because he studied literature as an undergraduate and graduate student. But, recently his work has focused on the intersection between art and Christian theology, specifically how God is revealed through contemporary literature. Ben also works as an adjunct instructor of English and hopes to use his interests to help students think more deeply about faith through the arts.