Seasons and Cycles

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. This means that it’s officially the season of Winter — though we’ve already had our share of below freezing weather and wintery precipitation: snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice pellets, and so on. And so today is a perfect day to think about seasons once again.

What is interesting about the seasons to me is that they aren’t just about changes in our expected weather; they’re also about the implications that weather has for our lives. And so, Winter provides us not only with snow but perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to slow down, to be cozy with friends and family, and to rest.

The heightened appreciation of the seasonality of life is one of the things I’ve appreciated in my year of magical thinking. Certainly, most traditions base their ritual life in the cycles of the moon and sun and are rooted in deep human intuitions about the seasonality of life on earth. In contrast to the arbitrariness and abstraction of our secular calendars, I’ve found marking the passing of time by the amount of light and the lunar cycles to be really beautiful. January 1 is a convention; the Winter Solstice is a cause for celebration. (LONGER DAYS ARE ON THEIR WAY!)

Beyond the four seasons marked by the solstices and equinoxes, Western astrology divides the annual cycle of the sun into twelve seasons, the ‘signs’ of the Zodiac. These are all given thematic meanings, which are more or less connected to the natural rhythms of the planet (e.g., the warmth and energy of Leo in the middle of northern hemisphere Summer is followed by the practical harvesting themes of Virgo in September, and the balancing, going-to-market themes of Libra in October). Even if these don’t actually correspond to real-life truths (I tried to remain intentionally agnostic about these big claims during my year of engaging with these practices), I found it really helpful to take these four-week periods to be attentive to certain areas of my life.

Perhaps the best example of this for me was Cancer season, which directly follows the Summer Solstice. It’s a season to reflect on the impacts of nurturing and family of origin. I honestly hadn’t expected much to come of it for me, and yet as the month went on, I was struck by how often — and how powerfully — the theme came up, particularly surrounding ideas of family legacy and the male lines in my family. While it wasn’t intentional, it’s interesting to note that the three integral readings of texts from Genesis that I did over the Summer were during this season and all revolved around complicated family issues: blended families, competing ideas of duty and expectation, and connection and differentiation between siblings. As it happened, the season ended with a visit to my family on the west coast.

Did this collection of experiences around the idea of family life in Cancer season happen because it was Cancer season? Was it coincidence? Or did it happen because I had primed myself to think about these issues? I don’t have an answer to that question, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Whether it was somehow ’caused’ by our orbit around the Sun or simply because the season was set aside for pondering family life, it was meaningful, it was helpful, and it was beautiful.

As a Christian, all of this makes me think about the Church calendar. One of the more interesting developments over the past couple centuries within Christian liturgical life has been the move away from a calendar primarily based on rhythms of feasts, fasts, and feria towards one more intentionally focused on seasons. Having grown up primarily under the latter model, I’ve long loved the seasons of the Church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. These function similarly to the zodiacal seasons in that they provide us themes for reflection as we move through the year. And because both Western astrology and Christianity emerged in the northern hemisphere, they follow a similar path connected to planetary cycles — celebrations of light in darkness in the Winter, new life in the Spring, and transforming energy and harvest in the Summer.

They differ however in instructive respects too, most noticeably that the Christian seasons are of shockingly different lengths, ranging from Christmas’ twelve days to Pentecost, which (if you, like me, consider it a season) lasts for about half the year. There are ways I find this frustrating — it’s hard to sustain thematic momentum over the course of twenty-five weeks! — but also helpful. On a metaphorical level, it reminds me of the truth that not all seasons in life last the same amount of time. Our planet’s orbit may run like clockwork, but our lives do not: Some seasons are short and others long. And on a theological level, I think it’s beautiful that the longest season of the year is the one that focuses less on the life of Jesus and more on the power of the Holy Spirit present and working in and through our own life. As Christians we commemorate the important seasons of Jesus’ life on earth, but we also know that they aren’t the end of the story: the story continues with us.

I’ve genuinely appreciated this year and its attention and intention on the noticing the passing of time in different ways. Seasons — whether regular like clockwork, or unpredictably long and short, whether grounded in the cycles of the sun, moon, and earth, or in our story cycles — are a beautiful part of life on Earth.

To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven. (Eccl. 3.1)

And thank God for that.

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