I read something long ago that always comes back to me at this time of year. It was a comment by an author; I don’t recall which one, but it might have been the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. He said that he preferred the wildest, stormiest day in the spring to the most glorious and golden day in the fall, because in springtime all of nature is coming to life, while in the autumn, nature is moving toward death.
He has a point. I could make my own case for preferring spring, because I was born in April and I love the season of rebirth and new life. Springtime brings Easter, the supreme event in history and the most solemn and joyful feast for Catholics and all Christians. It is a season of surpassing spiritual and natural beauty.
But fall brings riches far beyond the blazing red and gold of leaves changing color. Yes, it is the final burst of beauty from growing things that soon will wither, and it signals the approach of the bleak, frigid, dark days of winter. But the visual glory of autumn represents a spiritual beauty that is greater than anything we can see with our eyes.
Fittingly, the gold of autumn leads us to a royal celebration, the feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Gold is used in worship and church adornment to symbolize the presence of our God and King, as it did when one of the Magi offered it to the newborn King in Bethlehem. The gold in chalices, crucifixes, mosaics, vestments, paintings and icons signifies the presence of divinity and royalty: God-with-us, Emmanuel. One week after Christ the King we mark the first Sunday of Advent and the start of a new liturgical year. The beautiful Advent season will bring us to the place where Emmanuel, forsaking gold, hid his divinity within a dwelling of flesh and blood so that we might dwell with him, and he with us, forever.
Autumn often symbolizes the later years of human life, sometimes with an aura of sorrow and loss, and sometimes with wry humor about the diminishments of age. Who hasn’t heard jokes about the aches and pains and limitations that arrive along with “the golden years”? Those of us who have made it that far can attest to the downside of aging but can also bear witness to its blessings. The oft-maligned golden years bring the joys of seeing our families extend into new generations, the satisfaction of goals accomplished—whether great or small—and, often, the ability to bear setbacks and altered plans with more patience than we used to have. There is the realization of having been blessed through the years in ways that we can appreciate more fully in retrospect. These are among the rewards that come with aging, and they ought to be acknowledged and celebrated.
The season of gold, in nature and in human life, is not just about decline. It’s not merely a blaze of glory before inevitable decay and death. It is also a time of celebration, of gathering the fruits of a rich harvest, of taking stock of what we have done and how we have fared, for a year or a decade or a lifetime. It is a time of gratitude for work completed, graces received and the goodness and mercy of God—a time to go deeper into faith and prayer.
It is also a time to recall what Christ said when he told his Apostles that he was going to prepare a place for them: “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” Losses afflict us, sorrow and grief become more familiar, life on earth ends, but every ending implies a new beginning, a curtain rising. If we are faithful, we will rise to newness of life in and with Christ, and joys beyond imagining.
We have Christ’s word on that, and Christ’s word is golden.