Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor 4:16)

The last day of summer hasn’t officially arrived, but it’s been autumn in my heart for over a week already. Foretastes of fall have been filtering in all this time, heralding its coming with trumpet blasts of frigid gusts, smatterings of yellowed leaves, and the vapor of our breath escaping into crisp air. Fall is my favorite phase of the world’s lectionary. Its eldritch beauty exhales an atmosphere of mystery; its freezing rains drench the drab unreality of the everyday with something otherworldly. Magic seems more than plausible: it glimmers off of every branch and frond and moonlit cloud.

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It straddles Ordinary Time and Advent, spiraling between the times of Pentecost and the Time Between the Times, between the Ascension and the Coming of the Incarnate Lord, curling like tendrils of smoke rising from tongues of fire. The blistering summer sun relents and seems to drench all creation with its amber glare. The censer of morning dew sprinkles the season with sparkling, spectral beauty and burning bushes consecrate our neighborhoods and parks and countryside, hallowing the ground we tread.

Autumn is the kintsugi of the seasons. The points of brokenness in our world are bonded together with the glimmering beauty of decay, the brokenness not hidden but highlighted by its adornment in gold, orange, and red. What crown is so rich as the wreaths of dead leaves arraying the landscape? What mantle as majestic as the stalks and bark and moss bedecking the soil? Humanity’s fear of darkness and death is transmuted during this time, bringing us a uniquely plangent, twilit delight.

The smoke of bonfires goes up as incense, an aroma pleasing to the Lord of the harvest. On one side of this time is life and on the other death: here in the midst of it we stand, in the presence of life and death, life in death, sowing and reaping both coinciding in the Now of Jesus Christ. He stands between the living and the dead as the One who was dead and is now alive evermore, the One who, in dying, goes into the earth and bears much fruit (Jn 12:24). Christ’s triumph is the fragrance of death to some, and to others a sweet fragrance of life (2 Cor 2:16), but the mystery is the paradoxical pairing of the two. 

This isn’t a natural theology — it’s a theology of the natural. The strange revelation of autumn is that the holy God is not afraid of death and decay; that he can use them to beautify his creation because he has faced Death head-on and subdued its terrors from within. Death’s mechanisms and artifacts are emptied of their defiling power and made to serve him. The Levitical laws guarding the border between life and decomposition are annulled and the world itself becomes an empty tomb testifying to the uncanny triumph of God.

Autumn’s coming registers with us when some subjective indicator of our own tips us off: where others see summer sorrowfully dissipating, some of us see fall trickling in. For one brief season many of us can sense the unnaturalness of the “natural” and catch glimpses of something more than natural. To paraphrase Nicholas Lash, if the specters of autumn are strangers in our house then it is quite certain that our house is not our home. And so I welcome autumn even as I have been enjoying it all this while. May autumn find a home amidst us and abide with us as the world’s eventide begins to fall.