Here’s an essay by Wallace Adams-Riley (Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond and my regular running buddy) published in yesterday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. In it Wallace provides some valuable insight into the seasons of the Christian year, and especially the traditions of Ash Wednesday, which was observed yesterday by churches around the world.
Late last fall, my family and I moved to Richmond from Florida and, at my wife’s suggestion, I bought an overcoat for the first time in my life. I wasn’t sure I needed it, but she, a Vermonter, told me I would. Only a couple of months later, I was glad I had listened to my wise wife.
We had lived in Florida for only five years, and yet I was amazed at how much I had lost touch, in that short time, with what it was like to live somewhere with actual seasons; first the colors of autumn’s leaves; then the wind chill and snow (or snows) of midwinter; and then, mercifully, the tantalizing first hints of spring, with the delicate green beginnings of budding and leafing, the steady and unmistakable uptick in the bird population and, as noticeably as anything, the exponential increase in birdsong.
I’ll always remember walking through the Fan last spring, with my mouth practi cally agape at how the robins, finches, and sparrows filled the trees and all the air around with their ever expansive, ebullient song.
To be conscious of the seasons is elemental, one of those things most essential to being alive. Therefore, it should be no surprise that since time immemorial, and long before the major world religions were born, human beings have looked to the seasons as primary metaphors for the human experience — and, in particular, the human experience of the Divine.
When, in time, Christianity emerged, it was only natural for Christians to follow that same essential pattern as well. Over the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christians worked out a year-round calendar of feast days and fast days to commemorate the life and teachings of Jesus; and they arranged the architecture of the church year to maximize the metaphorical potential of the annual seasons.
For example, the Church situated the annual celebration of Christ’s birth in the very depths of winter, when the days are shortest and the world is darkest, thereby co-opting the entire natural world into the symbolism of the “light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
And so it is with Lent and the approach to Easter, that moment in the Church’s calendar we now enter. The natural, seasonal dynamics of death and rebirth, winter turning to spring, become a grand metaphor for the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. As with Christ’s birth in midwinter, so with his rebirth in the spring, the natural world joins in the annual remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection.
Indeed, the word “Lent” itself comes from the Old English lencten, used to describe the lengthening of days that marks the coming of spring. And, in the Church’s calendar, by dependable calculation (the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox), Easter always falls in spring. In fact, the word “Easter” was originally the name of a pre-Christian spring goddess.
That the Church takes such care to draw the whole natural world into the act of remembrance and the experience of worship is nothing less than sacramental. The sky, and the trees, and the birds, and the day and the night, like water and bread and wine, all become, as we say of sacraments, “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace,” signs of what God would do and is doing in our lives and in our world. For a faith which holds that, in the name of love, God took on the earthly stuff of flesh and blood, this correspondence is only natural.
Today, as the sign of the Cross is made on countless foreheads, with the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that, as divine as any faith may aspire to be, it is where that faith meets the lived experience of humanity that true colors are shown. Ash Wednesday is a day when we are especially aware of our creatureliness and mortality; and it begins a season of reflection and prayer, of rethinking and re-examining; a season to prepare for a change, a transformation, even a rebirth.