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Trinity + 21 (part 1): Autumn

16 October 2005
Exodus 33.12-33; Matthew 22, 15-22; Psalm 99: Dominus regnavit

Now we have reached October, most of us feel two conflicting moods about this season of mist and mellow fruitfulness. You can be like Jeremiah 8.20 and say: The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved or you can glory in the beauty of the season and feel re-invigorated by the beginning of the new year - in education, fashion, politics and, from next month, the Christian calendar. First, though, it is out with the old:

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves,
They go to the fire; the nostrils prick with smoke
Wandering slowly into the weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin, and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.
The last hollyhock´s fallen tower is dust:
All the spices of June are a bitter reek...
All burns! the reddest rose is a ghost.
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.
Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,...
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there:
Let them go to the fire with never a look behind...
They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour...
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Laurence Binyon
, 'The Burning of the Leaves'

For Binyon, as for our next writer, autumn is a time for spiritual spring-cleaning. They saw stripping the spirit bare as a necessary part of the cycle of life but found it impossible to mourn the death of summer without simultaneously exulting in the coming rebirth of spring. Whereas Binyon draws no conclusion about a divine purpose to this cycle, John Masefield is exhilarated by his vision of being purified and renewed by Christ.

O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after.
Lo, all my heart's field red and torn,
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there,
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest's yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced,
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.

The Everlasting Mercy

Thinking of autumn and spring in the same breath, as opposite sides of the wheel of creation, we remember that whereas 'for man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together, for nature it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.' And sowing and scattering abroad is of course what mankind does in spring. The wheel keeps turning. Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was, is not, and never again will be; what is, is change.
Edwin Way Teale, 'Autumn Across America'

The cycle of change is indeed inevitable:
While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease Genesis 8:22.

And we are brought face to face with our own mortality: We sang a round at school -perhaps you did too- to the tune of 'Frere Jacques' Life is but a melancholy flower which became:

Life is butter, life is butter,
Melon cauliflower, melon cauliflower,
Life is but a melon, life is but a melon,
Cauliflower, cauliflower.

It still cheers me up.

But we see things more vividly at this time of the year, and on a crisp autumn day we can feel an elated pleasure in God's creation which no other season can match, as Gerard Manley Hopkins describes:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
Hurrahing in Harvest'
(I love the wonderful unexpectedness of that phrase 'glean our Saviour').

Even when it is raining, however, when autumn has stripped the trees to their skeletal frames, we can see more clearly than we could in the summer, as Hal Borland reminds us:

October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.

And what about the glorious colours of autumn - and our response, which Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about so memorably?

O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being-
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red...'
Ode to the West Wind'

Let's leave the last word to the Reverend Francis Kilvert:

This morning between breakfast and luncheon I walked up to Bowood to see the the sun shone through the roof of beech boughs overhead, the very air seemed gold and scarlet and green and crimson in the deep places of the wood and the red leaves shone brilliant, standing out against the splendid blue of the sky...To the eye and ear it was a beautiful picture... the soft murmur of the woods, the quiet rustle of the red and golden drifts of beech leaves...the light tread of the dappled herd of deer, dark and dim glancing across the green glades from shadow into sunlight and rustling under the beeches.
Kilvert's Diary
, 3 November 1874

'A Prayer for Autumn'1 by Jerome Whittingham

Lord of the crystal blue sky,
Bless us with clarity of vision.

Lord of the lengthening evening,
Lighten our burdens.

Lord of the biting breeze,
Sharpen our response to your Spirit.

Lord of the falling leaf,
Lift our hearts heavenwards.

In our autumn,
May we seek your spring.


1 'A Prayer for Autumn' is reproduced by kind permission of Jerome Whittingham.

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