Fall is here, in all its spectacular color and chill. And despite the pumpkin overkill, the onslaught of Ugg boots, and the flood of leaves carefully filtered on Instagram, I really do love Fall. Not just for the beautiful kaleidoscope of colors changing, or the respite of cold after a long and hot summer, or the return to preschool projects with my son and watching the magic of a 3-year-old understanding and grasping and learning. I really love Fall because of death.
I realize that sounds morbid, as though I’m holding a Pumpkin Spice Latte with black gloved hands and too much eyeliner. But Fall is a season full of death. As those leaves change from living green to fiery oranges and reds and yellow, they are dying spectacularly. Trees will be bare in winter because of the death of Fall.
Most of us fear death. Our culture seems to have a legitimate phobia of it. We try to hold age at bay with creams and dyes and even the cut of a surgeons knife. We spend hours in front of a mirror trying to look beautiful so that we can pretend that our bodies aren’t decaying. We are obsessed with health and fitness and diet and tinctures and oils and medications that can keep Death far from us. Or when we know it is inevitable and likely to hold suffering we hasten its coming so that we don’t have to face its reality for any length of time. Gray hair and wrinkles terrify us because they show age, dying slowly is horrifying because it shows our weakness, our helplessness, these things reveal to us the truth that we try to keep at our periphery: We are dying. All of us, and it is completely inescapable.
And when Death finally does catch up with us, or when it comes like a thief in the night and startles us, we are angry. We have let ourselves believe for so long that we are invulnerable to death, that we ought to be able to cheat it, when it comes for us, or for those we love, we are livid, surprised, and devastated. And death really is devastating and painful, after all, it wasn’t in the original design, it was the outcome of a mistake so grievous it changed the trajectory of humanity.
But death is everywhere and it is inevitable. And the more we ignore it, the more it takes us by surprise, and the more we will miss. In fact, when we ignore death, we miss eternity.
Fall is full of death, and if we pay attention, we will see the miraculous truth it reveals. The leaves that fall on soil, in their death they will make it richer, they will make new life possible.
God died 2,000 years ago on a splintered tree, and death was defeated. Death can now bring life. It is this paradox we see over and over in nature, when a seed dies so that a sprout can rise and climb above the dirt to greet the sun. Fall and Winter bring death, so that Spring can bring new life. A tree falls and its dead trunk becomes the birthplace for new growth, soon teeming with life.
Jesus died, blood spilling like the bright red of a scarlet oak. And out of the grave Jesus emerged triumphant over death, like a defiant green sprout that rises out of the dark earth, alive and new.
I love Fall and the image of death it brings, because in Jesus, even death is different. Because with Jesus, death births life. This life we have now, it isn’t meant to last forever, because this life has been decaying since a hand plucked fruit from a forbidden tree at the beginning of time. And that decay and death is a promise: that this groaning of injustice, and wickedness, and the failure to do good that is in our own heart is not forever. In Jesus, this will all pass away, and he will make everything new and just and right and peaceful. Just as he makes new life every Spring, and in the heart of everyone who follows him.
When we follow Jesus we die, like a seed falling to the ground and splitting open, our old self dies so that new life can come into being, a life where Christ lives in us, and our old self that was so bent toward selfishness and pride, it is new and full of him. Death is necessary for life.
If we pay attention to death, if we look at its reality, instead of shutting our eyes to it, then that Roman cross and that empty tomb really begin to look like hope. And we need that hope, because without it we are doomed. We are all dying. That is terrifying, especially if we know our own hearts, and if we understand the infinite God who we have wronged, our fate is sealed. Death is terrifying because it is finality and brings judgement for our failures. But in Jesus it is a beginning.
When we follow Jesus death is not something to fear or pretend doesn’t exist, even the kind of death that brings great suffering and humility, because death points us to him, and if we know him, death isn’t final, it is an avenue to life. If we know him, we are familiar with death everyday, as we submit to him and let him put to death our selfishness, our deceit our pride and he replaces it with himself, his goodness, his truth, his grace. So as hair grays, and skin wrinkles, and death comes for the young and old alike, we remember how very necessary, how crucial is our need for the God who won victory over the death that is present everywhere and inescapable for every single person.
If we pay attention to death in this way, we have a hope secured, and we can finally live. We can live exhaustively for this God who conquered sin and death, we can be free to live fully for today, because we know that death can come at any moment, and we know that every person needs to hear of this God who died so that we can know real life in the fullness of his design. We can abandon ourselves to God and his cause because we know, death is only the beginning.