Posted by: jevcat | November 14, 2010

Autumn Apocalypse?

It’s November, and, in church terms, that means that while we are still technically counting Sundays After Pentecost, we are gearing up for Advent.  In other words, we have moved into the season of alarming readings:  Revelation, the Minor Prophets, things Jesus said – or someone thought he said – about the End Times.  It’s all fire, flood, earthquake, drought, pestilence, famine, and war – rather like one of the more violent pseudo-historical computer games – or the evening news.

My eye wanders, through the church windows to where, just outside, there’s a different sort of conflagration going on:  the annual autumn one, with every tree and bush attempting to outdo its neighbor in glorious self-immolation.  The world is full of burning bushes at the moment, and, if my toes could bear the chill, I’d take off my sneakers in honor of holy ground everywhere.

Autumn is a season of contradictions.  One day can seem like summer, the next like winter.  The colors of leaves shout “Life!” even as they die and fall and fade.  Perhaps that’s why Esther de Waal, in To Pause at the Threshold, notes that “for many people, whether they celebrate the pre-Christian Samhaine or the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls, this is the thinnest time of the year, the time at which the veil between time and eternity can easily become transparent.”

It’s also when the Celts celebrated their new year.  What is one to make of that?  If the Australian Aborigines celebrated the start of the year in November, it would be easy to understand:  for them it’s spring, light and life returning.  But the Celts were a northern tribe.  November meant the end of the growing season, vegetation dying off, days getting shorter and shorter, and the possibility that terrified all early peoples:  that the sun might disappear entirely.  Even celebrating new year in January, when most modern Western peoples do now, is more understandable:  the shortest day is past and light is beginning its slow return.

Yet the Celts didn’t wait for hope to be fulfilled.  They celebrated the “turning of the year” while the darkness was still strengthening.  And maybe I do have a glimmer of why.

Yesterday, my Beloved and I did something we haven’t done in quite a while.  We took a long walk, and we did it in one of our favorite places:  Great Kills, part of the scattershot shoreside network that is Gateway National Park.  Forest meets the sea at Great Kills, where a narrow wooded finger of land juts out from Staten Island, just as New York’s waterways open out into the ocean.

We parked the car in the bird sanctuary (we buy the required permit every year) on a mild, sunny afternoon and walked through the reeds and beach grass, past the bayberry bushes and dunes, and sat on a rock jetty for a while.  Somewhere beyond where we could see, the remnants of hurricane Tomas were apparently still whipping up the water, as the usually very small waves were kicking up something of a splash – not exactly thundering surf, but pretty much as near to it as Staten Island usually gets.  Off to one side there was an intermittent small whirlpool, gulls fought over bits of crab, one kind soul was wandering the beach picking up trash, and, with the air temperature around 60, two folks in bathing suits were wading in for a swim!  That puzzled us as much as the woman in the hooded down parka (talk about wildlife observation areas!).

Fishermen looking for stripers had so many lines out that it was impossible to really walk along much of the shore, so we took a trail back through the dunes and into the woods.

The late, long sunlight burnished the leaves even more gold and copper than they had been earlier,

and the ones that had already fallen softened the sound of our footsteps on the path, protecting the ground beneath them and beginning the slow nourishing of the soil for next spring’s growth.

Bright berries clung to many branches, waiting to fall or be eaten and have their seeds scattered, ready for sprouting when spring rolls around again.

In spite of appearances, death preparing the way for life.  As it always does.  Those Celts may have been on to something …


  1. Thank you for beautiful pictures and thought-provoking thoughts. I preached today and it was hard. The readings this time of year are, as you say, challenging. We keep striving to see God’s light, even in the darker days.

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