If, like me, you’re something of a sufferer from “S.A.D.” (Seasonal Affective Disorder)* you may be disinclined to like the winter. Dark, deathly, dreary, depressing: who needs it? If it wasn’t for the consolation of firelight, I’d hibernate. Like Wordsworth, I, too, am inclined to be moved to poesy by the sight of spring’s daffodils. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can congratulate yourself on being not at all “S.A.D.” Or possibly on having no soul. You decide.)
Seasons are part of God’s ordering of creation. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”. Autumn and winter with their dying and death give creation rest, and are as important, in their way, as spring and summer with their new life and growth. Nature’s phases – sowing, growing, reaping, rest – are all part of the circle of life.
I’m sounding more like a Disney song than I’m entirely comfortable with. I’ll move swiftly on.
There are “seasons” in our lives – in particular, in our shared life together as a church. (God who orders creation also orders his church which – staggering, humbling and downright baffling though this is to contemplate – is, in fact, the advance installation of new creation.)
But here’s the rub. God takes us through seasons, and they’re all good. But some seasons are dark. Some seasons are times of necessary, healthy death. Healthy death – does that sound odd? Oxymoronic?
In winter, growth stops, things die: this is not wrong – it is winter.
In our lives and our life together, we need to come to terms with winter, come to terms with letting go of things. As it says in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (think Nietzsche but in the bible): “There’s a time to die, to mourn, to weep” – “for everything there is a season”.
I must come to terms with “dying” phases and honour them as I more easily do with “growing” phases. This last year has seen the dying of a community I lived for. It has seen the loss or partial loss of some key relationships (not through death so much as through change). It has seen vision freeze over and idealism lie fallow. Can I see even these things as God at work?
Christians a great deal more spiritual than me have recognised spiritual seasons across the centuries. I’m in catch up. Brother Lawrence (him of ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’) was converted by seeing the difference between a tree in winter and the same tree in summer. St John of the Cross described “winters” of the soul that he famously called “the dark night of the soul”. These times of darkness, dryness, confusion, even lostness, were not, John of the Cross insisted, because of sin. They were part of God’s work in the soul. There was purpose in the pain – like an operation that heals us.
Spiritual life, it seems, is not just about what we see as “success”: growth, life, increase, achievement, winning the jackpot. It is also about dying, letting go, decreasing, ceasing. As possibly one of the most spiritual Christians of all time said: “I carry in me the dying of Jesus”.
Which brings us to Jesus. (Oh, him!)
Jesus knew about “winter”. Even in the three-year-long summer concert tour (theologically known as his “ministry”), he had his share of failure.
Followers dumped him (John 6); his own family thought he was a sandwich short of feeding the five thousand (Mark 3); his money man had his hand in the common purse and sold him for a handful of change (should have seen that one coming Jesus – oh, you did?) (Matthew 26, John 12); his closest friend denied knowing him (Luke 22).
And it all led to a bloody, brutal, humiliating death on a Roman cross.
Now, of course, we know that the cross was Jesus’ greatest work; his glory indeed (John 12) – the redemption of the world – but at the time it seemed like, and in a sense actually was, a catastrophic failure.
Winter. Spring came three days later.
It was said of the men of Issachar that they “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”.
It helps to know what time it is. Then we know what to do - or not to do. Winter blesses us with death, with cold, with stillness, with rest, with bright clarity. When spring comes, may I be ready.
In closing, I will corrupt a famous prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the winter I cannot change,
Fresh courage when spring comes again,
And wisdom to know the difference.
* To avoid flippancy regarding S.A.D., I should say that for some this type of seasonally-induced depression is a serious illness. Those who suffer from it in this way deserve our seriousness, our compassion and our prayers.