Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Genesis 1:14-19 and 8:22; James 5:7-8, 13-15
Yesterday, I was grateful to share an afternoon of retreat with sixteen others here at church. Our focus was the Autumn Equinox, and we reflected on themes of “balance” and “letting go.”
Typically, when I think of fall, I get nostalgic. Having been a child in Vermont, my memories include pumpkin patches, hayrides, cider and donuts, apple orchards, and brilliant hillsides of crimson, orange, and yellow leaves. But this year I decided to think more deeply about the shift from summer to fall, the actual change of season to season. And I learned some things I’d forgotten, or perhaps never knew.
First, the word, equinox, means “balance,” coming from the Latin words equi meaning “equal” and nox meaning “night.” As I’m sure you know, there’s both a fall and spring equinox, and both are defined by equal hours of night and day. Literally and symbolically, the equinoxes are times of year when the entire world is in balance, when southern and northern hemispheres receive the same amount of light. It makes me think of the first creation story in Genesis, which is all about balance, this morning’s verses about the balance between light and dark.
And yet, reading about the Equinox and listening to my fellow retreatants, I also know how uncertain balance is. Though “uncertain” may not be the right word. In fact, I can’t think of a word to express what I mean by a situation that’s both stable and bound to change. But I can give you an example. Did you know the Equinox is not actually a day, it’s a moment? It’s the precise and fleeting moment when the sun’s center is exactly above the earth’s equator. So, where we live on the east coast of the United States the Equinox will take place tomorrow at 3:50 am.
Why is this important? Because “balance” is fleeting. Exact, precise, and perfect balance is never permanent. It can’t be! If we were always perfectly balanced, we’d never move. The mere act of walking requires us to shift from one state of balance to another, over and over again. Both balance and imbalance are required for mobility, both balance and imbalance are required for living.
So, what does this mean for us? Well, for one, life will never be dull! For another, life will never, permanently, be peaceful, joyful, contented, or at ease. But neither will it ever, permanently, be painful, depressing, sorrowful, or distressed. We move through each of these states, sometimes stopping for longer or shorter periods than we like. But we do move through them. For movement is the way of the world. We’re living, not static, beings. And sharks aren’t the only creatures who must move or die!
As creatures of the earth, our bodies naturally respond to seasonal change. And, at this time of year, those of us living in the northern hemisphere respond to the waning of light. But, before I move on to humans, let me share a few fun (okay, weird) facts about a few of our non-human neighbors. Because all living beings naturally (and inevitably) respond to the change of light.
First, for you bird lovers, did you know every fall the Black-capped Chickadee’s tiny hippocampus enlarges by 30%, which enables it to remember where it collected seeds at different spots on the ground? Or, the Dark-eyed Junco, which nests in northern Canada, automatically responds to the waning light with shrinking reproductive organs, hormones that stimulate the rapid growth of new feathers (non-breeding plumage), and fat deposits to provide fuel for its long migratory flight ahead.
And then there are leaves, for most of us the most noticeable sign of autumn. In response to cooler temperatures and less available light, they stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment that assists with capturing sunlight to power photosynthesis. As the green fades, other pigments shine through, such as orange and yellow carotenoids and vibrant red anthocyanin.
Okay, science lesson over. But, isn’t it amazing?! Again, all earthly creatures naturally respond to changes in light. And we are earthly creatures.
So, how do we respond?
Well, because we’re human, we experience both physical and what I’m going to call, spiritual, changes. We homo sapiens are “meaning makers,” so not only do we respond naturally to the cycles and seasons of the earth, but we’re conscious (or at least semi-conscious) of these responses and attempt to make meaning of both our own lived experience and life as a whole.
So, as was mentioned at yesterday’s retreat, our responses to the days growing shorter could include the urge to eat and sleep more. Conversely, we might experience a burst of energy in preparation for winter. We might feel excited about all the upcoming holidays—or we may feel depressed at the mere thought of them. We’re each different. The point is the season is changing, and we’ll each respond.
What I want to encourage is this: notice who and how you are as the summer turns into autumn. Be present, be aware of how you’re physical and spiritual be-ing responds to this annual shift from light to dark. If you’re a person who does not respond well, there’s no shame in it! You may, in fact, be among quite a large number of people who experience SAD, or “seasonal affective disorder.” Does any of this sound familiar?
Feeling depressed much of the day
Losing interest in activities you typically enjoy
Problems sleeping (either too much or too little)
Significant changes in appetite
Feeling sluggish or agitated
Having difficulty concentrating
Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
Of course, these can be symptoms of depression any time of year. And if you experience them, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. The difference between depression and SAD is that the latter is, by definition, limited to the darker time of year—late September through Spring. There are a variety of treatments, but not surprisingly, light is the most important. Though I’m clearly not a health care professional, I do know many people benefit greatly from using a “light box” every morning along with spending at least 30 minutes outside in the sunlight each day. Of course, the latter is a good idea for all of us, SAD or not!
And yet… As important as it is to spend time in the light, it’s also possible, even desirable, to befriend the dark. Joyce Rupp writes in Little Pieces of Light:
I gratefully acknowledge how darkness has become less of an enemy for me and more of a place of silent nurturance, where the slow, steady, gestation needed for my soul’s growth can occur. Not only is light a welcomed part of my life, but I am also developing a greater understanding of how much I need to befriend my inner darkness.
And those who respond to this seasonal change with a burst of autumn energy (remember, we’re each different)? Well, fall can be a wonderful time to take stock of where we are in life, discerning what we might need to let go that’s holding us back from taking wing (remember those migratory birds!). Wesley Baines, graduate student in Religion, writes:
We all have leaves, of a sort. For a time, they gather energy unto us, but at a certain point, they no longer serve us. They lose their chlorophyll, turn brown, wither, and must be released. As you watch those earthly leaves fall to the ground to nourish the next generation of nature, consider your own leaves. Are you letting them go? Or are you hanging onto the dead?
These words encourage me to remember that “letting go” is an essential component of the ongoing act or art of balancing. We simply can’t grow into new ways of being and expressing ourselves in the world while simultaneously hold onto or carrying that which no longer serves. So, those of you with fall energy, in addition to whatever fall projects or plans or celebrations you may be plotting, I urge you to take time to reflect. In Wesley’s words:
Turn off your devices and take a walk. Make a pilgrimage of leaves, being mindful of the color of the sky and grass and leaf and stone, of the feel of the air, of the scents and textures and sights all around you. As you do, ask yourself, “What do I need to release? What are my burdens?” Pay attention to what nature is doing around you—after all, everything has a purpose, including the changes of the seasons, reminding us to keep changing, to not allow ourselves to become stagnant.
We’re each different, and this change of season will touch each of us differently. But whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey, we’re human creatures who crave a balance that always includes movement and growth. I pray each one of us will accept, embrace, even celebrate these changes, knowing they include both darkness and light, cold and warmth, sadness and joy, holding on and letting go.
I close with an earth prayer for Equinox:
On this day when light and darkness are equal, may you find the balance you need in your life. May you be blessed with prosperity and abundance of many kinds. And may you be surrounded by those who love you. Amen.