As a child, I spent a great deal of time in the countryside around Oxford. Many family walks took place on or near The Ridgeway – specifically, that section of the ancient trail that passes along the Berkshire Downs. My family hail from a little village that nestles in the shadow of these downs. It is one of three villages that are in close proximity to each other, joined by tree-lined walks, as well as roads.
This area of Britain gives a spectacular and beautiful display of the seasons. Spring really is an explosion of new life. The vista of flowers, buds, blossom and leaves is accompanied by the raucous noise of farm vehicles preparing the soil for planting. Summer and autumn bring an equally lovely arrangement of sights and sounds: sheared sheep, cricket, a glut of strawberries, combine harvesters, and long sunsets in the evenings that bless every created wonder with a red tinge.
Last comes winter, the season of Christmas. Late, late in December the countryside seems to shift its attention to this lovely festival. Arrangements are made to attach a trailer to a tractor and so to ‘deliver’ carol singers to all three villages in one night. One of the local lords opens his home, and his drinks cabinet, to give every participant a glass of sloe gin to wash down the mince pies.
Meanwhile, in the city… the seasons seem to have been ‘commercially adjusted’. Supermarkets receive their delivery of Cadbury Crème Eggs on 1st January. Six days after Christmas, Easter has begun! Seasonal fruit and vegetables are available for artificially long periods by flying or shipping it in from around the world. Halloween is a big thing and Christmas starts again – decorations and all – on 1st November. The musicians who have been sensible enough to sing a Christmas song are repeated on public sound systems for fully 55 days.
The colours of the city landscape change less noticeably throughout the year. A person living near a park will experience a hint of the arrival of autumn. A person whose daily journeys only involve industrial areas might merely be aware of days getting lighter or darker, warmer or colder.
As you might have guessed, this is a very biased reflection on country and city living! To be honest, I spent much of my country-based youth longing to be in a big city, with all the vibrancy and excitement. It’s only when I’m feeling very wistful, or hearing Slade for the 100th time that I miss the three tiny villages. But, I really do miss the seasons. Our cities and our shops fail us by obscuring them.
Each season reminds us that God is close by. Each season gives an announcement of God’s love, God’s creation, God’s blessing and God’s Presence. We are confronted by life and living whenever we experience the fullness of spring; just as surely as we are confronted by the reality of death and dying among the trees of midwinter. And how perfectly appropriate that the birth of Christ is celebrated in the darkest hour. Death is all around, but God does not abandon us to death. Hail, thou ever blesséd morn! Hail redemption’s happy dawn!
I find myself longing for the city to say more about God. But, perhaps, I just need to look and listen more carefully.
Just a week or so ago, a vandal with a tub of white paint took it upon himself or herself to obscure the ‘w’ in Cambridge’s ‘Godwin Close’ sign. I cycled past it several times, not really grasping the importance of the ‘new’ wording. Slowly, the message got through. The revised sign is now a daily reminder to me that a lack of awareness of God does not alter the fact that He is ‘in close’ to us. His Presence is powerfully announced in the seasons He has ordained. His Presence is no less amazing when whispered from an altered sign, or a small Judaean village, for that matter.