All Creation Waits

Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - 5:30am

All Creation Waits

“Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spend enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”

Meister Eckhart

When our first son was a toddler I wanted to add an Advent calendar to our family’s Advent practices. Before his birth we had already begun to take back late November and December from “the holiday season,” doing a few things that, though very simple, startled family and friends. We’d given up colored lights and Christmas decorations for four candles on an Advent wreath, only putting the decorations up, with the tree, on Christmas Eve. We waited until then, too, to sing or play or listen to Christmas carols, keeping quiet except to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” each evening around the lit wreath. Now and then someone dared to ask us why our home was so un-Christmasy. More people asked more pointedly after our son was born — as if we were denying him some essential of childhood.

We decided to strip down and step back after I read a few paragraphs in a rather dry tome on the history of Christian liturgy. Those paragraphs worked in me like fingers lining up the cylinders of a lock. I still remember the click when that internal 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 throughout the fall they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken. It made them anxious, edgy. Their fires were no substitute for the sun. When they had eaten up the crop they were feasting on, how would another crop grow? 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. Yes, last year the sun had returned to their sky. But what if, this year, it didn’t? Despite their collective memory, people wedded, bodily, to the earth couldn’t help asking 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. We feel, The light — life — is going. Those particularly afflicted know themselves as SAD — Seasonal Affective Disorder — sufferers. Some of us cope by seizing distractions the marketplace gleefully offers: shopping, parties, more shopping.

To be sure, some part of “the holiday season” is celebration of the harvest, for us, as it was for our ancestors, even if our personal harvest doesn’t involve crops and barns. We throw a party to mark the end of another year and all it’s brought. We do this in a big, bright, loud way. But for us also, as for our ancestors, the dark end of the year brings unrest. It is an end. It comes without our asking and makes plain how little of life’s course we control. This uncertainty, we don’t know how to mark. And so it marks us. We feel weighted, gloomy even, and we feel guilty because voices everywhere in myriad ways sing out, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

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 sense loss. And furthermore, there was a way to engage that sadness. That way was Advent.

The early Fathers of the Christian Church read the ebbing of light and heat and vegetable life each year as a foreshadowing of the time when life as we know it will end completely. That it will end is the rock-bottom truth we sense deep in our primal bones every December, and it rightly 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 the Church Fathers, 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, to know what Jesus called “the one thing necessary”: that there is One who is the source of all life, 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. Engaging in Advent’s stripping practices — fasting, giving away, praying — we tune into the rhythms humming in the cells of all creatures living in the northern hemisphere. We tune into our own essential rhythms.

So when I wanted to add an Advent calendar to our practice, I looked for one that would, like fasting, giving away, and praying, help us enjoin earth’s seasonal rhythm. The ones at Christian bookstores featured a thumbnail-sized cast of the Nativity behind the daily doors. Better than pictures of candy canes and gift packages. But I was looking for daily miniatures that were less about Christ’s human birth and more about the need for that birth. I wanted my little boy, opening each door, to sense that Advent is about darkness — and hope, fear — and hope, loss — and hope.

Pregnant with my second child, I set about making an Advent calendar. The pictures I found myself drawing behind the little cut-out doors were of creatures. Behind door number one, a turtle at the bottom of a pond. Behind door number two, a diamond-skinned snake. Then a loon, a wild goose, a bear, a doe, a crow ... As a companion to the calendar I made a little book. Each December day after Kai opened a door, I read a bit of a poem or song or natural history that linked the creature behind that door to the heart of Advent:

“Turtle is buried now in mud at the bottom of the pond. Encased in darkness, she is utterly still. She waits...”

I drew a turtle behind the door of December 1 because, days before, my son’s godmother had sent me her meditation on turtle as a symbol of the soul in its dark season. And because I knew my son, like all children, liked pictures of animals.

That was more than twenty Advents ago. Both boys still come home some days in Advent. We still open a calendar door and read about the animal for that day. They still want me to ask the only question I’ve ever asked at the end of the reading: Why do we have a turtle on our Advent calendar? Why a bear? Why a loon?

Looking at the animal portraits year after year shows us how a healthy soul responds to encroaching darkness. And there’s more than one response. There’s the turtle response, the loon response, black bear’s response ... When that primal fear of the dark — of the end — begins to slide over us, animals unselfconsciously and forthrightly offer unfearful responses. They take in the threat of dark and cold, and they adapt in amazing and ingenious ways. They shape themselves to life as it is given.

All 24 animal portraits enact heart and soul realities for us. Each in its way says: The dark is not an end, but a door. This is the way a new beginning comes.

The practice of Advent has always been about helping us to grasp the mystery of a new beginning out of what looks like death. Other-than-human creatures — sprung, like us, from the Source of Life — manifest this mystery without question or doubt. The more I’m with animals and the more I learn about them, the more I know they can be more than our companions on this planet. They can be our guides. They can be to us “a book about God... a word of God,” the God who comes, even in the darkest season, to bring us a new beginning.


This essay is excerpted with permission from Gayle Boss's book All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings. For more information and to read a longer excerpt, visit the website of Paraclete Press.
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Gayle Boss

is a freelance writer and editor whose work explores how relationships with the natural world and religious traditions can lead us to more soulful lives. Mother of two grown sons, she lives with her husband and Welsh Corgi in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her website is gayleboss.com.

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I would like to ask the editors at OnBeing to give us something more than "pretty" by its meditations. So often I begin reading these hoping for depth and insight, and feel at the end like I've just had a mouthful of cotton candy. Nothing wrong with them. But nothing particularly challenging or life changing either. I'm grateful for the images of nature and the thought that they represent something active in the dark , yes, yes, animals can be our companions, teaching us about unfearful responses, yes,-- but I think I will forget this essay before lunch. It makes me realize why people are so dissatisfied with sermons these days. The best ones aren't appalling, but they don't do much either.

Here is another way of considering this, Tracy. On Being has a broad audience. Some people will find an idea challenging that is not at all challenging to a person who is farther along on a path. Also some people do not come here to be challenged but only to feel soothed.

What I saw in this article was not a challenge but a reminder that we can all craft our own traditions that have meaning for us. Sometimes this is an issue for a new family looking to depart from the way a holiday was celebrated in the home of origin, as an example. Sometimes grief or loss calls us to new traditions and habits.

It is not a challenging idea, true, or an original one at all, but a reminder that may come at a good time for some readers.

When I see readers' comments on articles here, I see great appreciation for gentle and unchallenging reminders of things people can do to make their lives feel better, particularly in times of insecurity or pain.

I have this book, and it has blessed me and my family throughout this Advent season. After the first reading, my seven year old son gushed in quiet amazement, "That. . . is . . . awesome. . . " The following day, he pronounced that the reading about the black bear was "even more amazing-er than yesterday." It has been a wonderful way to encourage my children (4, 7 and 9) to experience wonder and the incredible creativity of God, which can be found both in the natural world and in the story of the birth of Jesus. I highly recommend it.

Reading this made me recall with longing the advent wreath and calendar of my youth. So for that I want to say "thank you" to my mom, and to Gayle and her book's illustrator. I will attempt, in 2017, to observe the Advent season with some thoughtfulness. I realize now that Advent is the reason why I truly start feeling the Christmas spirit in my heart around 12/24. Fundamentally, my core being does not want to listen to holiday music for 45 days prior to 12/25 or put up a tree prior to mid-December. But it makes me wistful that Christmas cheer, hymns, and decorations, in current US culture, seem to vanish on 12/26. I will make sure I celebrate Epiphany.

A friend recently gave me this book with its thoughtful meditations on animal habits--and the STUNNING woodcuts. She considers it one of her all time favorite books (and she has hundreds of books). Reading it, I find myself pushed to think about the world differently--there's a lot we can learn from the adaptive habits of animals who slow down during advent instead of speeding up. This is a sweet book but also challenging in that it implicitly reminds us of the wisdom of animals and our responsibility to share a healthy planet with them.

Thank you, Gayle, for taking the time to explore the meaning of Advent and what it holds for us during the darkest time of the year. My mother gave her grandchildren an Advent calendar every year, choosing one appropriate to each of their ages. My daughter looked forward to receiving hers right through college. She still has them, carefully packed away. My nephew wanted to know why he didn't get one after he turned 20 or so. My mother thought her oldest grandchild had 'outgrown' enjoying the calendar, apparently, he had not. She would've loved your Advent calendar and book. I begin the Advent season with one candle in a window for the first week and so on through the fourth week. During the fourth week I put up our tree and add more lights. It's my way of preparing and waiting.
I live in the woods surrounded by woodland animals. I've been wondering about and watching how each one copes with winter's cold and darkness. I will add your book to my Advent this year and give a copy to family members to carry on the tradition my mother started.

apples