Japanese Sakura And A Taste Of New Creation

From the ages of 12-13, my family lived in the town of Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. We made many wonderful memories there, but one of my favorites was from our first cherry blossom season in Japan. I remember being awestruck at the beauty of the blossoms around the Kintai Bridge, and all the cultural elements that came with it. It was foreign in many ways, especially for a budding teenage boy living on an American base, but it stuck with me.

When I moved to Japan as an adult, I looked forward to seeing the blossoms again. I was just getting back into photography after a break of several years. I purchased the Nikon D7000 just before the blossoms arrived, and I wandered all over the town we were living in exploring the season. That season set in motion for me a passion for photographing the sakura in Japan that has continued on to this day.

Images shot during cherry blossom season in 2011

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy the cherry blossoms, but for me it’s a kind of intense fascination. Cherry blossom season has become a specialty of mine as a photographer. My cherry blossom photos have been published in National Geographic Traveler and Jetstar’s airline magazine, featured by Smugmug, and I’ve also led photography workshops focused around the blossoms. I’ve done a number of projects for a travel company in Japan that involved the cherry blossoms as well. I always set aside as many days as possible during the season just to get out and photograph. And of course, I try to make sure I have time to enjoy at least one hanami (cherry blossom picnic) with my family.

Despite the number of years that I have enjoyed the sakura season with my camera, it wasn’t until the last few years that I finally understood why it was so special to me, and it has to do with one of the most important elements in Christian theology: new creation.

Many people – including many Christians – assume that the point of being a Christian is basically so that you can go to heaven when you die, or at least so that you don’t go the other direction. But the story of scripture is much greater than that. The story of scripture – that is, the drama that unfolds in human history throughout the Bible – paints a larger picture of God’s work in the world which will one day culminate in him renewing his creation. The central element of the Christian faith – Jesus’ death and resurrection – is both the climax of this drama and also the beginning of something new entirely. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of his new creation, and assures us that one day God will make all things right, bringing complete justice and goodness into this broken world. It is a story of redemption; a story of God redeeming broken people and a broken world. He will restore what has been lost, bring to life that which is dead, and bring his own dwelling to be with humankind.

I believe that is a beautiful hope, a life-transforming hope, and I see a glimpse of it in the cherry blossom season.

At its base, cherry blossom season is the fulfillment of the yearly promise of spring. The signs have been there for weeks: fading cold, birdsong in the air, buds on tree branches. As the sakura bloom, the signs evolve from expectation into reality. The season of death has passed; new life has arrived.

When I first wander out with my camera to enjoy the blossoms each year, I am reminded of God’s promises to make this world new. I am often left thinking that if God could make something so beautiful in this present world with all its brokenness and death, he must have something unimaginably beautiful in store for the new creation. In that sense, while the blossoms are the fulfillment of signs from the past, they are also signs themselves pointing to the future.

And that, I believe, is the real glory of Japan’s sakura season. The cherry blossoms don’t just offer hope for the future, they bring a taste of that future goodness into the present. I believe God has given us, by his grace, whispers of future glory here and now. Some days the pain of life seems too much to bear. Sometimes the mourning seems to never end, evil seems insurmountable, the grave seems to surely have the final word. But there are moments that can be transformative, in which heaven itself seems to break into the present world: watching a beautiful sunset in the mountains, holding your newborn child for the first time, celebrating with friends and family. Some days, even amidst all the bad, the good is so good that one might forget the bad even exists. For a moment, it seems beauty and goodness have won.

This is what the cherry blossoms do for the world each spring. In hanami parties, joy and celebration break out, sometimes in unexpected places. And the trees themselves transform otherwise mundane or even unpleasant scenes into something of beauty. A graveyard becomes momentarily a garden of spring. An old fence becomes a backdrop for new life. A polluted river surrounded by concrete becomes a painting of natural purity. It is a whisper of new creation in the present.

In this way, the cherry blossoms are a kind of sermon to those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. We are not to be twiddling our thumbs while we wait for that future day to come. In Christ, says the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17, we are already newly created people. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Which means we are also called to live out that new creation power which is at work in us in the world around us. Like the cherry blossoms, we are supposed to be people who transform the world with God’s beauty. We are supposed to bring a taste of the future into the present world through our lives by the power of God’s Spirit in us.

This is why I love cherry blossom season, and why I love sharing it with my camera. Every time I go out be it into the city, or into the countryside, the scenes of sakura captivate me not only with their beauty, but with the hopeful story they tell. It is, of course, a very brief story. And it is certainly incomplete. It is but a whisper, but it is a whisper of glory to come. I hope that through my photography and through my words and my actions, I can offer that same whisper to the world as well.

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