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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 8: Cottontail.”
Advent with Cottontail: Utterly Still, Utterly Alert
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 8: Cottontail
Nose pressed to the cold glass, I squint through the grainy gray dusk filling up our backyard already at five o’clock. A lump breaks from the thickening dark and hops—then again, and twice more—to a scraggly buckthorn with a few green leaves, and stretches up.
Every evening I watch for this eastern cottontail. She lives, I think, deep inside the brush pile at the edge of the narrow woods. Late summer and fall I saw her more often, and earlier, before the sun had fully set, her gray-brown coat pieced seamlessly into the pattern of tree trunks, underbrush, and weeds.
She would eat—almost anything green—then pause, settling into herself, into her surroundings, tucked and compact, the picture of contemplation. Dozens of times I tried to creep close to sit with her, to soak up her peace, only to have her bolt—bursting from rest to a zigging-zagging dash in less than a heartbeat.
That lightning-bolt dash is now her one defense. Where once she blended into the ground cover, she now stands out in any light like a cork in a pool of milk. In the snow her feet leave neat pointers to her hiding place. And her many predators, who are as hungry as she, are watching.
She takes precautions. She doesn’t venture out until the dusk is as dark as her coat. If snow has fallen, before she looks for twigs or bark to gnaw, she first packs down the fluff and powder on trails she’s made from her door to nearby cover.
Even an inch of snow bogs her bolt. Keen escape artist that she is, she keeps three or four trails, alternate routes, groomed for fast getaway.
When she’s packed the trails and tested them for speed, she’ll slip back into her resting place—just a shallow hollow she’s scraped in the ground beneath the brush pile or a tangled thicket or the tent of a young spruce tree. She could dig a burrow, to hide underground. She’s got the front feet for it. She’d be warmer there—and trapped, no space for a zigzag dash. Does a hole in the ground feel to her like a grave? She chooses instead a brushy hermitage above ground and there draws herself in, concentrating all her warmth inward.
It will be warmth enough, mostly. A few of winter’s sharpest days will force her to crawl underground, into an abandoned skunk or woodchuck den. Barely in. She’ll huddle near the exit, alert for the first softening of the air. More than the hole’s warmth she wants space to leap and bound away.
In exchange for space to artfully dodge the hungers that pursue her, she must be still, very still, when she can. She must shelter herself, warm herself. She’s practicing now. Beneath the buckthorn she’s gathered herself, ears laid against her head, settled on the fine first snow. Utterly still, she is utterly alert. In her stillness is her leap.
Illustration by David G. Klein in All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings.