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This post is adapted from the introduction to All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss. For the three Sundays of Advent and on Christmas Day we’ll publish excerpts from the body of that book: “Painted Turtle,” “Chickadee,” “Cottontail,” and “Jesus, the Christ.”
Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature—
even a caterpillar—
I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God
is every creature.
Damp, dim, and heavy, like a wet gray blanket dropped on my shoulders. That’s how I remember late November days in the Northwest Michigan of my childhood. Into December, the light bled away, the cold sharpened, and my spirit grew yet heavier with guilt as myriad voices around me sang, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Inchoately, something inside me objected, No it’s not! It’s dark and cold and everything is dying.
An annual December sadness persisted into my twenties and through a move to Washington, D.C, a city less cold than northern Michigan, but with its share of late-year gloom. Then, on a fall day in 1985, with November dread right around the corner, I read a few paragraphs in a dry tome on the history of Christian liturgy that worked in me like fingers lining up the cylinders of a lock. I still remember the click when the lock popped open.
I learned that the roots of Advent run deep beneath the Christian church—in the earth and its seasons. Late autumn, in the northern hemisphere, brings the end of the growing season. When early agricultural peoples had harvested their crops and stacked food in their larders, they gave a collective sigh of relief. Their long days in the fields were over. For their labor they had heaps of fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat. The group body called out, Feast!
At the same time, no matter how glad the party, they couldn’t keep from glancing at the sky. Their growing season was over because the sun had retreated too far south to keep the crops alive. Each day of the fall, they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken. It made them anxious, edgy. Throughout December, as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear—fear for survival—crouching over them. They were feasting, and they were fearful, both. When they had eaten up the crop they were feasting on, how would another crop grow? Yes, last year the sun had returned to their sky. But what if, next year, it didn’t? Despite their collective memory, people wedded, bodily, to the earth couldn’t help but ask the question. Their bodies, in the present tense, asked the question.
Our bodies still ask that question. In December the dark and cold deepen, and our rational minds dismiss it as nothing. We know that on December 21, the winter solstice, the sun will begin its return to our sky. But our animal bodies react with dis-ease. The light—life—is going. Some of us sink into a seasonal depression. Some of us cope by seizing distractions the marketplace gleefully offers: shopping, parties, more shopping.
The church history book that got hold of me told me that my own annual December sadness was no reason for guilt. It was a sign of being wide awake in the world, awake enough to feel loss in all its forms. Furthermore, it offered a healthy way to engage that sadness. That way was Advent.
The leaders of the early Church read the ebbing of light and life each year as a foreshadowing of the time when life as we know it will end completely. That it will end they sensed as pointedly as we, to whom it may seem more menacingly imminent. Rightly, it terrifies us. To their and our abiding fear of a dark ending the church spoke of an adventus, a coming. Faith proclaimed, When life as we know it goes, this year and at the end of all years, One comes, and comes bringing a new beginning.
Advent, to these church leaders, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray — all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark: that there is One who is the source of all life and is ever creating, One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.
This is Christian tradition at its best, moving in step with creation. When the sun’s light and heat wane, the natural world lets lushness fall away. It strips down. All energy is directed to the essentials that ensure survival. Advent’s stripping practices — fasting, giving away, praying — tune us into the rhythms humming in the cells of all creatures living in the northern hemisphere. We tune into our own essential rhythms.
We’re enveloped, however, in a culture fearful of loss in any form, a culture fervent on accumulation. To drown out the wisdom of Advent, of a season of stripping down with other beings made of earth to prepare for a new beginning, it insists on a loud, long, extravagant “holiday season.”
Our creature-kin are here to help. “A word of God,” each of them, “a book about God,” all of them, they enact, in their responses to the dark and cold, the mystery at the heart of Advent: The dark is not an end, but a door. This is the way a new beginning comes.
Next Sunday, we’ll see that wisdom embodied in the Painted Turtle.
Animal illustrations by David G. Klein
in All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings.