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Catching the Light
A reflection on autumn leaves and All Saints I The Word in the Wild, All Saints, Year A
Note: This Wednesday, November 1, is the Feast of All Saints. In a bit of an oddity in the typical liturgical calendar, this is both a fixed and movable feast. Many churches choose to move this feast day to the following Sunday, in this case November 5. Either way, my reflection below is centered on both the occasion and the Gospel reading for this feast.
The leaves are beginning to change, saved by late October rains. The sweet gums and black gums are first, their deep reds contrasting with the continued green of the oaks. In my yard, both my elderberry and hackberry trees are turning yellow, their leaves soon to be joined by the orange and red of the oaks in the warm, fire tinged pallet of fall.
I notice leaves in the fall, their colors and contrasts standing visible in a way they don’t through the green of most of the year. But that color reminds me of the work these leaves have been doing since the spring, the vital job of catching the light and turning it toward life.
Ours is a solar powered world—from oil to breakfast—most of the energy of our everyday lives can be traced back to the sun. But while the sun shines on all planets in our system, all twisting in their oblong orbits around the solar pull of gravity, it is only on Earth that the energy is captured and made available to a host of life. And thought it was a long and meandering path to get there, plants are now at the center of that work. It is through plants and their leaves that the light is caught and made available for the abundant life of the world. In this, leaves are blessed things.
Leaves, and their turning, colorful reminders of their presence, comes each year in Arkansas around the same time as All Saints. It is a fitting correlation because when I hear the word “saint,” I think of that beautiful description from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “the saints in light” (1:12b). Saints, we might say, are how the light gets caught and turned toward energizing the abundant life of the world. Like leaves, however, we often don’t notice saints until their colors come; we don’t notice the until they make their journey toward death.
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I worship in a church full of beautiful stained glass windows. Many of those windows depict saints, turning the invisible clear light of the sun and bending it into an image where we can see its light, refracted. These saints in stained glass are the kind we see, but behind them, like so many green leaves, there are many more saints living out the ordinary and everyday work of catching the light and turning it toward life.
To elevate a few of these saints is only a way of noticing what is going on in the background all along. And without the light shining through them, most of even these saints captured in stained glass, would be unremarkable. They were people like most of us, those who were without all the resources of life, who wept and didn’t have it all together. They were people who longed for justice and often didn’t see it. They were those who prayed for peace despite the constant onslaught of violence. What made them saints, those blessed people who make God’s love visible, wasn’t any of these normal human situations or longings. Instead, it was they they turned their lives and longings toward the light of Christ, basking in His radiance and absorbing it into nourishment for the world. It is in this turning toward the light that they provide an opening for the healing love of God against those forces of darkness that seek to undo love and destroy God’s creatures through pride and shame.
In his beautiful little book, Taize: A Meaning to Life, the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément writes that the only answer to the spiral of evil in the world is “by means of [an] openness of heart which allows God to enter the creation: if men and women open themselves freely to God, then the divine energies (energies of goodness, of love and of true creative power) will be able to spring forth in the world.” These are the saints in light, these are the leaves by which God seeks, in the end, to provide healing for the nations (Revelation 22:2).
Such saints are not significant because of any capacities they possess on their own. They are not the best or brightest, or if they are, that is not what makes them radiant with the truest light. As Jesus makes clear in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, these saints, these blessed ones, include the broken hearted and frustrated, the despised and the desperate. As Clément goes on to write: “Whoever is the most excluded, whoever is the most forgotten, whoever is the most misunderstood, this is God. He looks and asks if there are any hearts that freely let go of themselves and open themselves to him. For if he can enter the world through them, the world will change.”
This is a reality that extends even into death and necessarily passes through it. For just as leaves turn radiant and then fall, becoming the humus soil for new life, so the saints who catch God’s light and carry it within them, must die in order to welcome the life of resurrection, the life in which God’s kingdom takes root, grows, and flourishes. In that death, following the way of the cross, they bring about the ultimate life and light.
Ours is a world full of evil, the soil bare and compacted, trees cut and forests paved over, war and hatred and fear turning hearts toward the dark. In such a world, I have no hope in governments or economies, technologies or education, systems or the “next generation.” Instead, for my part, I find hope in those things that catch the light and turn it toward new energy for life. Planting trees and turning our hearts toward God, that is where I find the answer to an unraveling world. It is through trees and saints, I’m convinced, that the healing of the world will come, just as it always has.