Springtime seems to have landed full-force in Oxford; there’s blossoms on the cherry trees down the high street, the birds are rapturously chirpy, and unexpected tulips are springing up in the most mundane of places. Walking down the river last week the air even tasted of spring – it’s like there’s richness and life in the air, emanating up from the soil. There aren’t many people who don’t glean some hope, and no small measure of symbolism, from the dawning of Spring.
For me, one of my favourite times is the bit just before spring starts. To the unheeding eye it’s essentially still winter, but there are subtle signs that things are about to change: it’s ‘prevernal’, as the nerds say. The grasslands and verges are a bit richer with greenery as iconic springtime flowers have a flurry of growth before their blooms are unveiled. Only the snowdrops really have the gumption to have appeared yet. Trees, still lacking in leaves, start to split their buds – the dormant little pods of hope awaken and bulge with potential. Little shoots of wayward weeds tentatively start peeking up in all the places you’re not looking, like in the cracks in paths and the corners of courtyards. This year I felt like spring couldn’t come soon enough. The darkness and lack of newness seemed to drag on a bit too long this time.
Many of you may know the worship song ‘This is what you do’ – it’s lovely and encouraging. It begins ‘It’s always like springtime with you, making all things new.’ I take a lot of encouragement from that. But sometimes I sing it and it feels untrue. I’m not doubting that God is always doing a new thing somewhere; and, I’m not doubting that He has the power to bring newness in all situations. I believe that, and I’ve seen it. But the here-and-now, earthly Christian walk is not one long springtime, eh? There are fruitful, exciting summers; beautiful winding-down autumns; cold, unrelenting, ‘will-this-actually-end?’ winters; and then the refreshing newness and life of spring with all its chances to begin again. To reject or ignore the other seasons denies the reality of what life is like. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” [Ecclesiastes. 3:1]
I think what struck me most about the prevernal season a little while back was the magic of what was going on unseen. Spring always seems to hit in one go – all of a sudden there’s blossom everywhere, all the bulbs have flowered, the days are longer and the trees are suddenly lushly leafy. But it never comes from nowhere. It comes from weeks, if not months, of plants and animals preparing behind the scenes, even if only at the cellular level. There is so much wrapped up in the seeds, bulbs and buds that needs time to develop before it emerges. The unseen stuff has to happen for the visible to be made possible. And, there’s nothing you can do to force it. Whatever ushering and wishful thinking you throw in its direction, spring comes when all the factors are right and the growth is ready.
Winter is always hard. Spring is always so full of promise and progress. Summer is when the world gets to see the fullness of life. But that prevernal … gosh, it gets me. The hope and promise is so subtle but there’s so much going on.
Apparently winter started early this year, according to bird migrations, meaning our ‘winter’ was a smidge longer than normal. It’s been a bit of a long winter for me too – regardless of the movements of Siberian Swans. Thankfully I’ve reached the prevernal. Spring’s not here yet, but I can sense its coming some way in the distance. There’s light, and potential for future fruit, and the air is starting to taste a little different, but the buds are only just splitting. The growth isn’t quite in the visible realm yet, it’s in structuring a leaf before it unfurls, in the germinating seed poking into the soil-y darkness and powering its way to the surface. The shoots will come.
For those of you in the winter – whatever the winter relates to – take heart that spring always comes, even if winter seems to have stripped everything away. For those in spring time, invest in your shoots: water them, put them in the sunshine and enjoy as the blossom comes with the promise of summer fruit. And those, like me, in an in-between-y prevernal, worry not that your buds haven’t burst open for the world to see yet. The behind the scenes processing, developing and metamorphosing is crucial for the coming spring.
You can’t force spring, you can’t rush spring, but it always comes.