Autumn: Dying Beautifully

Photo by Bill Walsh

The leaves of Indianapolis die richly. They turn through glory as they go: empyrean yellow, atonement red. A carnival of color over the streets. The blessing is sudden, a shock.

We know about cholorophyll: the science behind the magic. But behind the science, there’s more magic. Why the gratuitous color? Why make dying so spectacular? In a world charged with the grandeur of God, this riotous change of scene can teach us. God puts on the mystery play of autumn and speaks:

1. Autumn wakes us up to wonder.

When spring regenerates the world, I notice the bright new green for maybe a week. I celebrate the leaves’ birth, the world’s fresh clothes. But by August, it’s all just background. These delicate, intricate, innumerable fluttering treefingers are a green wash.

There’s nothing wrong with the leaves. It’s me: repetition inoculates me against wonder. Like G. K. Chesterton says, I don’t have God’s capacity to delight again and again at each new leaf. He keeps unfurling them—they even wave to get my attention!—but the eyes of my soul glaze over.

In autumn, the creativity of God hollers. Look at these things! These paper-thin solar cells that convert sunlight into acorns! They’re everywhere, and they’re made by a God who, as N. D. Wilson reminds us, doesn’t know how to stop creating. Autumn reminds us that there’s a world of wonder.

2. Autumn promises that there’s glory after summer.

I’m young. My leaves are green, and I’m still spreading branches. Western culture is all about the glories of youth: strength, vitality, a body not weathered or weakened by time. We are a spring-and-summer people.

Spring and summer have their splendors. But autumn has a glory all its own. Autumn leaves are delicate, but their colors are so bright they almost shine. Summer’s wardrobe of green is great, but it has nothing on the end-of-life beauty of the fall.

My parents’ leaves are starting to change. Their color is silver rather than red, but the glory is the same. They may not have quite the same speed on the Frisbee field. But they have wisdom and grace and decades of joy that shine in their faces. They’re taking on the beauty of autumn, showing dimensions of glory that my green summer-self doesn’t display.

And my father’s mother, my last grandparent still on this tree, is a golden sweetness.

3. Autumn reminds us that winter is coming.

The ruckus of autumn’s glory gives way to the silence of winter. Just in time for me to notice how many leaves there are and how beautiful each is, they’re going. The colors fade, and the leaves fall.

Autumn reminds us that our leaves too will die. The curse we inherited from our father-tree Adam means we have our seasons and then we go. Winter takes us all.

This is worth stopping to consider. My chlorophyll will break down; my limbs will turn brittle; one of these breaths I now take casually will be my last.

And what, then, when my tether snaps from this mortal coil?

Autumn can draw our attention to the one man who broke through winter into an unending summer. The one who spent three days brown and dead in the dirt and came back in an indestructible green. The one who wasn’t just a leaf; he was a whole new tree.

Winter comes to us all. But winter isn’t the end for Christians, because our lives are joined to a tree that winter cannot touch. Death has no sting; winter has no bite. We will fall from the tree of Adam; but we will flower again in a spring of eternal, glorious growth.

Holding this truth gives us the hope to die beautifully.

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