Each year on the Sunday before Christ the King, I preach a sermon that incorporates the changing seasons and the changing church seasons. It is based on a poem (probably too long) I wrote some years ago and continue to refine. In its fullest form, it can be found here.
In late November every year, I am struck by all the marks of the changing season.
The cooling winds of Autumn run their fingers through the trees, twirling paper thin jewels into the air. All but the most stubborn of greens is blown away, leaving reds, golds, brozes, yellows in their place. Finally the earthy brown leaves sink to the ground like feathers that have lost their bird. Crows mock us from the parking lot, banging on the door then flying away when I answer, like mischievous children. They laugh at their practical joke as they take to the trees. The river breathes out her mist, rising in the chilly morning air, silent and holy as I drive along River Road to the church, and it is all a wordless Hallelujah.
Barbers Orchard is selling apples and turnovers so delicious that the memory of them makes you look forward to Fall all year long. Halloween candy is nearly gone, so that means Thanksgiving will soon be upon us. Small rings of smoke crown some of the houses in town and there is the smell of earth and dampness from raking leaves. The wheel of the year is turning, putting to sleep the vibrant earth, with a lullaby written by stars in the lengthening night sky and sung in these shorter days by the migrating geese high above our heads.
The church, like the world of nature, has seasons as well. The sights, smells, sounds and stories bring us round the year and back again. Some things are constant like the sweet smell of communion wine, the sounds of music 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 changes 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 a part of the very fiber of who we are.
We have come to the end of the church year. The season changes. Next Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, is kind of like the ‘new year’s eve’ of the church. The end is the beginning. Then the church year starts afresh with Advent.
During Advent, we await with great anticipation the coming of our Lord, Jesus. The beginning is the end. 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. In those days, our Chrismon tree will glitter 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, gently waking the world from the long winter’s nap. The days begin almost imperceptibly, to grow longer. It is as if creation itself, knowing what lies ahead, cannot wait to share it all with us!
Then, it is Ash Wednesday and as the light in the world around us slowly rises, 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 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 flowers 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, leading us out into the blazing glory of the sun. 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; the greening of life and hope. This is the season of the church, as it is called. The church is growing, lush and green with the uncountable 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 once more 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 the 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. We end where we begin. The wheel of the year turns in the loving 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.