Did you know that woodchucks (aka the groundhog) and Jesus’ birthday have something in common? On the church calendar, February 2nd is Candlemas, the last Feast Day in the Christian year dated in reference to Christmas.
This celebration of Candlemas marks the presentation of Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth (as Jewish custom required), and the purification ceremony of the Virgin Mary at the same time. (Luke 2:29-32). The word ‘Candlemas’ (or Candlemass) refers to the custom of blessing and distributing candles and carrying them in procession before the Mass celebrated in churches in many parts of the globe. The lighting of the candles is symbolic of Christ, the light of the world, as Simeon declared in the Luke passage above.
What does that have to do with a groundhog? An old, old rhyme translated from the Scottish tells us:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright Winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, Winter will not come again.
So, if the weather is ‘fair and bright’ on Candlemas day, you can expect more winter weather. If the day brings ‘cloud and rain’, then the weather in the weeks ahead should improve. And there you have it: another only-in-America observance involving a groundhog predicting the weather with roots in the Christian calendar, anchored in the life of Christ.
But this post isn’t about Christmas or candles or woodchucks–it’s about reading around the Church Year, anchored not only in the life of Christ but our own lives throughout the seasons, months and days in God’s creation.
Here are seven books currently gracing my bookshelves which have accompanied me in my own cycles through the seasons according to Creation and the birth of Christ. These include poetry and essays by writers from the 1800’s–George MacDonald–through the 1950’s and into the present day, all as rich and varied as their authors.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle
They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on the two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.
Malcolm Guite is a poet and priest at Girton College, Cambridge in the U.K. These two vocations dovetail in Sounding the Seasons, making church feasts liturgy accessible to readers who may be less familiar with the church calendar. Guite’s sonnets begin with the season of Advent and read through to the Feast of Christ the King on November 11th. As an Evangelical still learning about the Christian way of marking time, I especially like the Index with Scripture references Guite uses, as well as the correlation to the liturgical calendar.
Home by Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 1999
Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopal priest, professor, author and theologian and is one of the United States’ best known preachers. The title of this particular book comes from a song by James Taylor, coincidentally, about the Magi’s decision to go “home by another way” after they’d seen the Christ Child. Taylor’s essays knock everything on its head when it comes to theology we hold so dear about simple things like the Holy Spirit, how we think of Jesus and what exactly the disciples thought about the Resurrection.
“No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way.” From The Company of Strangers, an essay on Epiphany
Taylor’s reflections take in Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. Essay titles include God’s Ferris Wheel, Three Hands Clapping & The Yes and No Brothers, to name just a few.
The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle, HarperSanFrancisco, 1977
Madeleine L’Engle was a mother of four children, married to actor Hugh Franklin and the author of over 45 books. (‘How?’ is always a question…) The Irrational Season, Book 3 of The Crosswicks Journals, has 12 different essays beginning and ending with Advent. L’Engle is probably best known for her stories about the fictional Austin family, tales of the Murphy children and their journey through a tesseract via A Wrinkle in Time, but she also wrote a good bit of poetry. Many of her poems are woven through these essays, the Christmas one in particular, from which the title of the book is taken:
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
You can take all year to read her book–I did! That’s the great thing about reading through the church year; you can take your time.
Diary of an Old Soul/The White Page Poems, George MacDonald, Betty K. Aberlin, Zossima Press, 2008
Thanks in part to the Mr. Rogers documentary from earlier this year, I noticed someone missing who had been a favorite of mine and my children: Betty Kay Aberlin, aka ‘Lady Aberlin.’ I went searching, virtually of course, and discovered Betty Aberlin is alive and well living on the East Coast somewhere, painting and writing poetry. Through the magic of social media we struck up a conversation as one does. Aberlin mentioned a book of poetry she’d co-written, so to speak, with the late George MacDonald. (Scottish preacher/author/poet, 1805-1924) by pairing MacDonald’s daily entries from “Diary of an Old Soul” with her own White Page Poems.
MacDonald’s daily diary is written with one 10 line sonnet for each day of the year; I discovered when it was published he originally wanted ‘white pages’ across from each of his poems so readers could write their own sonnets in response. Betty Aberlin did just that, hence Diary of an Old Soul, The White Page Poems came to be. Aberlin was born Jewish and is now a Christian and her faith is woven clearly in these poems. One entry in particular that resonated with me:
“O, may we neverendingly live, grow Through and beyond the errors of our days, That even these old branches, pruned and bent, May bud into new greenings, sweet and slow. After hard rains, crushed blossoms heaven-scent The air with forgiveness, and with this praise- Hope balanced we walk tightrope in thy ways.” -bka
Stillmeadow Seasons, Gladys Taber, McCrae Smith Co., 1950
Gladys Bagg Taber (1899–1980), was the author of 59 books, including the Stillmeadow books, and columnist for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle. Stillmeadow Seasons is a collection of essay/chapters, beginning with April, each depicting one month on the farm in the life of Gladys and her family. Taber finds joy in the simplest things and writes lovingly of not just Springtime and gardens and picnics but also about housework, chores in the garden and mucking out dog kennels.
The August chapter (my birthday month) begins,
“Early morning is like an opal, glowing and soft and cool, with a hint of the day’s fire in the depths. It has a breathless perfection, a lucent air laced with silver of bird song. And, oh, the lovely scent–of roses, of musky ripening tomatoes, of cucumbers, bean vines. (The) cows move from the red barn with deliberation, mounting to the upper pasture. Shep follows, his tail a dark flag against the green hill. And a file of small kittens is visible, coming on powder-puff paws after the warm milk.”
One line in particular made me smile, “A day ought to have forty-eight hours, especially in August.” Find your birthday month and read these nostalgic recollections of simpler times. (Abe Books or Thrift Books are a good resource.)
Roots and Sky-A Journey Home in Four Seasons, Christie Purifoy, Revell, 2016
In “Roots and Sky” Christie Purifoy ponders the power of every day wonder in simple things, viewed through the lens of the four Seasons. I asked a friend if I could begin reading “Roots&Sky” with the ‘Spring’ section, skipping over Fall and Winter. She counseled me to begin at the beginning with Fall, explaining there was a reason for the Autumn backstory. I’m very grateful I did. Christie’s journal chronicles the trials and triumphs encountered when she and her husband purchased a very old farmhouse high on a hilltop in Pennsylvania. Old, like built in the 1880’s old.
Dreaming of a grand future—flowers, farming, fellowship with neighbors–Christie and her husband begin the daunting process of reclaiming the old and worn and broken down. Each of the four seasonal sections is about so much more than restoring an old house. There are tales that go deeper than furniture polish and hundred year old window cases, straight to the heart of what makes a place home.
Small Rain, Barbara Crooker, Purple Flag Press, 2014
Barbara Crooker is my hero. A poet of a certain age (mine) whose inspiration for work comes from nature–particularly gardens and birds. The first two sections–Winter and Spring–are titled in Latin, ‘Corvid’ is Winter–the crows, jackdaws and ravens–although she writes of so much more. ‘Passerine’ connotes Spring, relating to ‘birds who are known for perching, particularly songbirds.’ Certainly a befitting group for Spring.
Poems in Summer are aptly named and grouped by ‘Nectarine’–what could say ‘summer’ better than a ripe nectarine? And Fall is ‘Amaryllis’, the papery, crinkled bulb we bury in late October, expecting blooms come Christmas time.
Now that we’ve circled back around to Christmas, reading our way through the seasons, I hope I’ve piqued your interest in titles you may want to consider adding to your own bookshelves.