It happens every year at about this time. I am out and about for a last turn round the woods before winter sets in with a vengeance, and there they are. I usually first see them flying in a small flock, a dozen or so sparrow-sized birds. I seldom see them except in flight. They are beautiful in flight, flying in tight formation, all the birds wheeling and turning as one, their brilliant white undersides flashing with each turn as they skim just above the surface of the field or clear-cut opening that I am passing through. Invariably I stop and watch, mesmerized.
They will often land on the ground as one bird and when they do I lose sight of them. And then, for whatever reason, they will up and fly again. Taking off in tight formation, they resume their aerobatics at almost ground level. It always seems that the first significant snowfall happens within a few days of my first sighting.
I call them snowbirds, though my bird book informs me that is not their correct common name. They are more properly referred to as snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). Some people even call them snowflakes. They arrive with the start of winter and stay with us until they begin their migration to the Arctic in the spring where they will breed and nest and raise their young. They are truly a winter bird, and when they arrive in our area I know that winter has arrived too. I suppose that is why when I first see them flying in formation over a field I am filled with the contrasting feelings of euphoria and angst. Winter’s arrival does that to me. I love the season and I dread it. I love its spectacular beauty, its weather challenges and its recreational opportunities. And yet I despise its long, dark nights, its bitter cold winds and its horrid driving conditions.
The snowbird is for me a harbinger of a season of delight and dread. And not just winter, but Advent. (The words no sooner hit the page and under my breath I find myself uttering, “Now ain’t that a caution?”)
I must confess that I feel a little odd at Advent time in the Christian church. There seems to be all the talk of joy and exultation with the celebration of the coming of Jesus at this time of year, which I share. But if I am honest, I am also filled with feelings of angst. Because of that, I feel more than a little out of place in a church that oftentimes seems to be exclusively bent on joyful celebration at this time of year.
But Advent isn’t just a pretty picture. At Advent I become deeply aware of the anticipation and joy of a coming Saviour, be it in the past, present or future sense. But I also become acutely aware of my world, twisted and distorted in its struggle with what it needs saving from. At Advent I seem to hear the angel’s breath lifted in exuberant song but I also hear the world’s breath locked in a death rattle. I sense God’s love coming down but also sense God’s reluctance to get so terribly bloodied in the world’s frantic travail. This tension, both human and divine, makes Advent seem to me to have an element of desperation as well as elation that is so often missed in church these days.
With the snowbirds and the beginning of Advent I am often seeking expressions of the desolate, or perhaps better put, the desperate aspect of the season. I find something is usually needed to round out what often seems a one-dimensional season in church. Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem that eventually became the carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is an excellent expression that captures much of the contrasts of Advent, I think. Its tone accurately captures a sense of desperate anticipation that, for me, Advent is all about. I think I understand why it was such a favourite amongst soldiers in the bitter trenches of the First World War.
Another expression, seldom recited in church but which really ought to be each Advent, is Irish poet W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Yeats wrote the poem in the aftermath of the First World War. It is fittingly apocalyptic but at the same time picks up images from Christ’s birth. The phrase, “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” almost says it all in one line for me.
Joni Mitchell did a reprise of the Yeats poem in 1991 on her album, Night Ride Home. I offer the whole poem below as a counterpoint to round out your Advent season.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?