Around this same time every year, I am struck by all the wonderful marks of the changing season. Leaves turning colors. Crows cawing at me in the parking lot. People talking about getting pecans for holiday baking. The air is crisp and cool. How big were the brown stripes on the bodies of the soft black wooly worms? Are we in for a cold winter or a mild one this year? The mountains have changed out of their lush green robes and into their yellows, reds, oranges and stately browns, clearly mark the turning of the wheel of the year. Halloween candy is nearly gone, so that means Thanksgiving is quick on our heels. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like Thanksgiving was coming so late this year, but now it is almost here! Small rings of smoke crown some of the houses on my street. The smell of earth and dampness from raking leaves.
In Columbia, SC, where I lived while in seminary, it is a bit like Florida in that the only way you know that the seasons are changing is by what is on sale at Wal-Mart and whether it is more or less hot. But here, in this area of the Appalachians, the changing, growing, dying and rising of the year is unmistakable.
The church has seasons, too. The sights, smells, sounds and stories bring us round the year and back again. Some things are constant like the sweet taste and smell of communion wine, the sounds of instruments and voices blending together, the words of the liturgy and prayers. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Still, so much does change as seasons move us forward. The church year tells the story of the life of God and our life with God. It is an emotional, spiritual and mental journey that becomes a part of your heart and mind and even, if you will let it, a part of the very fiber of who we are. We have come to the end of the church year; in fact, next Sunday (Christ the King Sunday) is kind of like the ‘new year’s eve’ of the church, and the year begins afresh with Advent.
During Advent we await, with great anticipation, the coming of our Lord, Jesus. More than just the prelude to the big holiday, it is during Advent that we await his coming both as the tiny helpless baby, born to Mary, and his coming again to complete the renewing of all the earth; to completely bring about the kingdom of heaven. We light candles to watch for the Messiah, both lying in the manger and coming in the clouds. Blues and purples fill this season of anticipation, mystery and wonder. As we delve deeper into the darkness of fall and winter, God shines his light of hope even brighter.
Christmas follows; the Festival of the Incarnation! Immanuel—God with us. We celebrate the joy of the priceless gift of the Son of God. Angels from the realms of glory sound their trumpets in celebration! White and gold cover the altar in honor of this great coming of God. Our Chrismon tree glitters with the golden ornaments rich in symbolism—all formed specifically to remind us of a name or title of Jesus. Crowns for the King of Kings, sheep for the Good Shepherd and crosses for the Lamb of God.
As the wise men come to the child Jesus, bringing their gifts of incense that surely must have filled the room with their exotic, thick fragrances and precious gold fit for a king of kings, we are made hopeful in the knowledge that this child is for us, too, that he is for all of us. This Epiphany, the ah ha of God for us, shines like brilliant stars in the ever lengthening night sky, like the rising sun making diamond dust out of snow.
And, yet, beneath the other gifts for the Christ child is the myrrh. The bitter perfume used at death. What a gift for a child! A foreshadowing of what is to come in the life of the Son of God.
The wheel of the year turns. The days begin almost imperceptibly, to grow longer. It is as if the earth, knowing what lies ahead, cannot wait to share it all!
Then, it is Ash Wednesday and as the light in the world around us gently, slowly increases, Lent begins our descent into the season of penance and into a richer, fuller meaning of what this baby, now grown man, is really about. The journey of 40 days in the wilderness, our road the deep, jewel-like, Lenten purple, begins with cross-shaped ashes. Our baptismal cross of Christ marked on our faces is visible to all the world. Remember o mortal, you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Made of dust but in the shape of life.
Holy Week arrives. Palm Sunday. Light spring air smelling like fresh grass and melted snow and warming earth all around us. We start the reading of the passion of Christ outside with the waving of Palm branches. Hymns of triumph—but a triumph we know is not yet fulfilled. Palm Sunday is as much a preview of the royalty of the King of Kings as spring is the hint of summer’s thriving glory. And yet, there is more in this story we must go through before real triumph is here. For then it is Maundy Thursday and the stripping of the worship area of all adornment. All celebration. Seemingly all hope. The altar is bare and the sanctuary somehow feels vulnerable and empty.
Good Friday arrives with black on the cross. The stark contrast with Palm Sunday is deep and unmistakable. The tomb closes round us all.
And then, suddenly, it is Easter. White and Gold drape the altar like rivers of light and hope. Halleluiahs and the scent of lilies fill the air. Jesus Christ is Risen Today! Halleluiah! And the Halleluiahs echo on for a very long time.
The wheel of the year turns again. Through the heat of the Summer when the whole world seems to be buzzing humming exploding with life, Pentecost explodes like wind and fire. The Spirit blows through the church, filling, calling, gathering. Growing. The brilliant red on the altar turns to green—the color of growing things. Of life and hope. The season of the church, as it is called. The church is growing. Lush green. The innumerable shades of green growing throughout the ancient mountains rising all around us.
Even as those mountains begin to dress in first gold and red, then brown, a color slide down the hills. Even as the winds get just a little cooler once more; butternut squash and corn and pumpkins are ready. Apples need to be picked and turned to applesauce. Even as the great round Harvest and Hunter’s moons declare again the turning of the wheel of the year, even so, the church remains green. Evergreen, like our God. Ever growing like roots deep in the dark rich earth of these mist covered mountains. The nights lengthen and the light seems more and more precious, golden and fleeting.
Trick or treaters and tons of candy and costumes. It is All Saints’ again. Lighted candles warm the sanctuary and our hearts. The aroma of burnt tapers, extinguished. Salty tears on cheeks, awaiting the hand of the Lord to wipe them all away. To make all things new. Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.
It is the church’s new year’s eve again. The wheel of the year turns, safely in the hand of God. The winds grow colder, the nights longer, but our hope stronger. We light one candle to watch for Messiah. We pray O come O come Emanuel. With anticipation and excitement we mark off the days because he, our Lord, is coming! Coming as the tiny baby in the manger and coming in clouds descending. Coming again in the deep, cold night, in the star strewn sky, in the gold and rich incense of wise men, in the greening up the mountain. Coming again in the dark, dry ash marking our foreheads, the winding, purple Lenten road, in the crocus and the mountain laurel and the hummingbird. Coming again out of the myrrh scented tomb to walk in the lilies and brilliant summer riot of color, in the wind and fire and the ever green growing church. Coming again to wipe away all tears. Coming again to make all things new.
Preaching about the church year on the last Sunday of Pentecost is a tradition for me. The sermon is taken, as it most often is, from this poem, written in my first year as pastor of this little Appalachian congregation.