Samuel Barber begins his great oratorio, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with James Agee’s suggestive words—“It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently—talking gently, undulating in astral motion….” Front porches with rocking chairs or blankets on the grass on a summer night are less common for many of us these days. Even fewer people seem to have heard Barber’s oratorio or read James Agee. But I guess most who have grown up in the south at least have heard from the song from Porgy and Bess:
“Summer time and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Your Daddy’s rich and your Momma’s good lookin’ so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”
What made me think of these memorable songs of summer is not the cultural calendar that marks the first day of summer as June 21st or the Memorial Day weekend, which for many opens the season. Frankly, it was the Church’s calendar, which marked the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost as Ember Days. Ember Days are vestiges of the early centuries in the Church’s life as it evangelized an agrarian society. Some years ago I wrote on my blog of “Life’s Fallow Seasons”. It is the natural theme for the Winter Ember Days, which follow St. Lucy’s Day, December 13. There are also Spring and Fall Ember Days—for the seasons of seedtime and harvest—the sowing and reaping seasons of life.
The spring reminds us that there are seasons of life when we live for the future; that not every hour, day, or season of life is for now; when we realize the present needs to be the doorway for tomorrow. We realize during such seasons that today’s decisions, sacrifices, and duties will pay dividends in the future. A constant theme of teachers of the young or of financial advisors like Dave Ramsay. This is irrefutable wisdom and has far less to do with age then we sometimes realize. The American poet, Archibald McLeish once observed, “At eighty, you have to begin to look ahead.” Preparing for the future is as much for the elderly as for the young. An older couple arranging for their funerals or making out a will, less blinded perhaps from the illusions of the busy middle years of life, are in that moment living and planning for a tomorrow that is sure to come. Yet there can be danger in always looking ahead. We can be stuck in a perpetual mode of preparation. Always preparing for some tomorrow and never getting around to living for today.
Summer Ember days remind us that there are days—even seasons—where life’s living is for now. While we know fall and winter will come—and we need to be prepared for such seasons—today isn’t always a day to prepare for them. Today is first and foremost a day to live. Today matters. It can be working, fishing, sitting and enjoying life—but it is for now. In today’s world we need to hear that somedays, some seasons are for living—not the reaping of the past—not sowing for the future but living for today. The man who takes a vacation so he can do his work better or the person who has a picnic on the 4th of July so he can work harder (or more efficiently) on July 5th has not yet understood what a picnic or holiday is. I have known some clergy over the years who did not take their vacation days. Frankly, sometimes they were not always the most effective priests. Not because they did not rest—but because they did not drink deeply enough of life.
Summer Ember Days and Sabbath bring a similar message to us. Philo, a Greek speaking Jew in first century Alexandria wrote in a defense of the Sabbath to his Greco-Roman peers: “It’s object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities….” This, however, as true as it is on one level is actually not the spirit of the Bible. In this defense of the Sabbath, “rest’ takes on a utilitarian purpose. Nevertheless, the Bible’s view of the Sabbath is not something we observe to enhance the efficiency of work—as if we are first and finally beasts of burden. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath is made for man not man for the Sabbath.” The great Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel notes: “The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life…not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of [man’s] work. The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.” The Summer Ember days along with the Sabbath remind us that today is a day to live. Life is now and now is for living.
Jesus took one look at his disciples freshly returned from their missionary adventures and said, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6: 30-32) It was rest with the beauty of God’s creation; it was rest with those with whom they shared much of their lives; it was a rest away from the disorienting world; and it was a rest with Christ. It was a much-needed season for rest and for Sabbath. The traditional translation of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 11:28-30 is so well known and we pass over it too quickly. Perhaps, Eugene Peterson’s rendering may help us hear afresh: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I will show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Yes, the fallow season has its rest—the earth rests that we may rest—but it is a passive rest that waits and prepares for springtime and for sowing. The rest of summer is an active rest—that is it does not anticipate so much as it delights, enjoys, and is. Oddly enough, it often ends up shaping life more that we realize. This is not because it plans to; but almost because it doesn’t. Take it from one who has heard more eulogies than the average person. When grandchildren, nephews and nieces get up at a funeral or wake to share memories of the departed relative more often than not the memories they share and that shaped them are moments and experiences of some vacation, or weekend with their grandparents, great uncle or aunt. It wasn’t a time set aside or planned to be formative of the future or reflective of yesterday. It was intended only to be a time for now; for today; for the evening; a time of “rocking gently—and talking gently, undulating in astral motion….” and in the process it seems the moving stars inexorably shaped a future, a life, a child, anointing another with delight. Summertime—when the living is for now…when today and eternity matters!