We have all heard the expression, “the only constant in life is change.” This is a key principle of the I Ching, considered to be the foundational work of Chinese wisdom. The natural cycles of the world keep everything in balance. Like a pendulum, once circumstances get to one extreme, they naturally swing back toward the middle. The Chinese say that “all is arranged to be perfect” 恰到好处.

The commentaries on the I Ching bring this to life by describing the agrarian calendar as a dragon emerging from the ground into the heavens. In the first phase (December/January), the dragon is deep within the ground. Hence, farmers had best let nature enjoy its rest. In February/March (often when the Chinese new year occurs), the dragon emerges from the ground bringing forth spring and all of its renewal. Thus, the earth comes to life.

With the auspicious dragon now among us, farmers diligently go about their work (April/May) so that all is in place for the heat of the summer (June/July). Generally speaking all is well while the dragon is still within the firmament.

As the fall approaches (August/September), the dragon leaves the world and then enters the sky. With the blessings of heaven, there is usually a great harvest. In the final phase (October/November), the dragon ascends as high as he can go in the sky, and then has no choice but to return back to the earth so that the cycle can begin anew.

By adapting to the cycles of life, we can survive and even thrive. The renewal of the spring sets forth the conditions that allow for the summer planting. The harvest of the fall provides the stores for winter survival. In modern parlance, we often say, “this too shall pass.” What may seem to be good circumstances may take a turn for the worse, and what may seem to be bad circumstances will often be short lived. One way or another, everything works out.

On this Ash Wednesday, when ashes are applied to our foreheads, we are reminded that “from dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” Taken from Genesis 3:19, God was telling Adam that he was created from dirt, and that he would return to dirt when he died. This death came about from sin. And so on Ash Wednesday, we place these ashes of mourning on our foreheads to remind us of our own mortality and to repent of our sins. But rather than dwell in our winter of sin, we also know that our spring of rebirth will come 40 days later at Easter with the promise of new life that Jesus has given us.

In the agrarian cycle, the dragon comes and goes each year through a predictable sequence, starting and ending during the “death” of winter. Likewise, our bodily lives begin in dust and return to dust. As farmers sow and reap in between these extremes, God calls us to do the same by spending time with him and developing our faith to enjoy the good times and be fortified in the bad. But one thing the dragon cannot do is bring us eternal life, which Jesus alone has given us by bearing our sins. We just need to do our part by worshiping and obeying him, which will allow us to transcend these cycles of life and become one with him in his supreme perfection.