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On November 27, the first Sunday of Advent, we published an adaptation of the introduction to All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss. Today, after a thumbnail of that introduction for context, we offer the book’s reflection “Advent 4: Chickadee.”
Advent with Chickadee: The Equation of Existence is Open
The roots of Advent run deep beneath the church—in the earth and its seasons. Advent is Christian tradition at its best, moving in step with creation.
In late fall in the northern hemisphere, 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. To leaders of the Western Church in the seventh century, the right naming of this season when light and life are dying was, paradoxically, Adventus: the coming.
The Church 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.
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.
In a culture fearful of loss in any form, a culture fervent on accumulation, our creature-kin are here to help us live the wisdom of Advent. “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.
Advent 4: Chickadee
Nearly every winter day the small flock would arrive a-flurry at the feeder outside the window of Miss Milner’s second-grade classroom. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” she would sing. “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” we would answer.
Small round bodies with large round heads capped in black, they were acrobats, twirling upside down on the feeder and on the pine boughs brushing it. They didn’t fly away when I pressed my nose to the windowpane but looked me in the eye, I was sure, and peeped.
Perhaps she was sparing us—children who still felt the suffering of creatures—but Miss Milner didn’t tell us that every cold night those cheery birds walked a tightrope between life and death to greet us the next morning. Half-an-ounce of feather, flesh, and hollow bone, a chickadee in your palm would feel like the weight of two nickels. Like any living thing lightweight relative to its length and width, it loses heat quickly. So the little bird must eat continually during winter’s short daylight hours to stoke its metabolic fires for the long night to come. Even so, on a below-zero night the fires can go out. Even tucked into the shelter of a tree hole, even with the ability to drop its body temperature substantially to save energy, a chickadee on a winter night burns through all the calories it ate during the day. Before dawn, as soon as there’s light enough to see, the chickadee flutters out, famished, its tiny brain intent on seeds.
Tiny, its brain, but bigger now, in Advent, than in spring.
I tip my head at the chickadee tipping his head quizzically at me. Inside that black skullcap his hippocampus is bulged with a precise map of his half-mile territory, an X marking each flap of tree bark or log crack where he’s stashed a seed. Since late summer his brain’s memory center has been growing, adding neurons to record the location of every single cached seed—thousands of them. As he eats them up through the rest of winter, the map and his hippocampus will shrink. Will the seed map be gone before the ice and snow?
No wonder the chickadees at Miss Milner’s feeder seemed ecstatic. Their winter stashes would last longer thanks to the bonanza—best, the black-oil sunflower seeds—she poured out every morning.
As they swirl and twirl and hop and flit about my feeder now, they seem a flock of St. Francises. Like the saint wed to Lady Poverty, every winter day the equation of their existence is open: Will there be enough of what they need to take them through the dark night, into tomorrow? Beyond reason, like the saint, they act as if the question is truly an opening, a freedom, a joy.
Illustration by David G. Klein in All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings.