by Becca Ehrlich
Reading: John 12:24
“[Jesus said,] Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.”
Growing up in Upstate New York, I always looked forward to the coming of autumn every year. Long before all of the pumpkin-spiced food products were a tradition, I couldn’t wait to feel the change from summer’s hot and humid air to feeling the crisp and coolness of fall, needing a sweater or jacket to go outside, and family bonding time while apple and pumpkin picking.
Another big fall tradition for my family was what many people call “leaf peeping.” This is usually done by people who travel somewhere a distance away to see the changing of the leaves in fall. Because we already lived in a place with abundant trees and mountains, we didn’t have to go very far to see the leaves change.
And wow—did those leaves change! Where there had been different shades of green in the tree line gradually changed to yellow, orange, and sometimes even bursts of red. In our own backyard we had a vibrant visual of the changing season, and it was beautiful.
There are scientific reasons that leaves’ colors change in the fall—the breakdown of chlorophyll (the green pigment that plants use to make their food using sunlight through photosynthesis) and other necessary chemical reactions cause the various colors to come out for different trees and plants.
The leaves’ color brilliance in the fall is a precursor to what we all know is coming—the falling of leaves and bare trees that accompany winter’s coming. The leaves that show amazing colors only do so for a short amount of time before they are no longer alive. No longer making plant food for themselves, they fall on the ground and crunch underfoot before the first snowfall.
It can be depressing to think about how short-lived the fall colors are, and how the leaves fall to their deaths right afterwards. But what’s fascinating is that these fallen leaves continue to have an important purpose to fulfill. After they fall to the ground, decomposing leaves offer nutrients to the soil, stopping the growth of weeds and aiding in plant growth. Basically, fallen leaves are nature’s free fertilizer and mulch, playing an important role in plant life cycles and the earth’s ecosystem.
Fall leaves offer an example of beauty in the face of death and resurrection. Without their changing of color, falling, and dying and decomposing, there would be less growth in the spring when the snow melts and everything starts growing again.
In our verse from John, Jesus uses the similar example of a grain of wheat; in order to bear fruit, it must go through the death process to bring new life.
The leaves and the grain are a metaphor for our spiritual lives and life experiences. We, too, experience death and resurrection on a regular basis; “little deaths” that can lead to new life later. Any change in life can be our leaves or grain: graduation, changing jobs, retirement, saying goodbye to a loved one, or relocating are just some examples.
It can be tempting to want to fast forward to the greenery of spring, but fall is a natural part of nature’s life cycle—just as it is a natural part of our lives. What’s so amazing is that there is beauty in both parts—in the gorgeous changing leaves, and in the delightful new plant life that the fallen and decomposing leaves help grow.
The disciples thought that Jesus’ death on the cross was the end—but resurrection, for both Jesus and for his followers, came afterwards. Whenever we experience a “little death” in our lives, we can remember that resurrection and new life is right around the corner.
Becca Ehrlich is an ELCA pastor. She blogs about minimalism from a Christian perspective at www.christianminimalism.com and her book, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, was released in May 2021. She is passionate about helping folks connect with God and live more simply, in ways that make sense for their own life contexts.