I had been looking for them for weeks, from the first real shock of cold weather in early November, expecting at any moment to be brought up short in the midst of a day’s round by the sound that is at once the most wistful and the most exhilarating I have heard in nature. To be arrested with the wild, sweet declaration of change in the air and the turn of the seasons. To be held fast and fixed in a spell of wonder that is the yearly migration flight of the sandhill cranes. I remember so many late afternoons in autumn, the yard around us violet with gathering shadows and the day’s last gilding just ebbing from the treetops as we stood with heads thrown back in a compliment of complete silence, watching the tiny black mass swirl and mount its heavenly way before pressing southward in a somewhat ragged ‘V’, always cherishing the jumbled cacophony of cries that must be deafening at close range and yet has about it all the poignancy and the bewildering exactitude of change ringing at such a distance.
They have always been a herald, a harbinger that electrifies me with aliveness and anticipation, and I love them for it.
But they have never been so late, in my memory. And I hadn’t realized just how intently I’d been listening for their glad tidings until it came.
It was one of those days that every second seemed to count. Every hour so carefully planned so as to press the last oil of productivity out of every moment. A day of loved preparation, no doubt, but ever teetering dangerously in the balance between ‘bustle’ and ‘huffing about’. The last sugar cookies were cooling on the racks and I was just measuring out the ingredients for gingerbread when I stopped as if I’d been tapped on the shoulder and caught my breath over that familiar ache of joy. I set down the jar of molasses and flew out the kitchen door, into the keen chill of a December afternoon, and whirled about, searching the sky.
I think I felt them before I saw them, in much the way that a person senses observation. For just as I turned in their direction, they appeared with a gliding sweep above the proud hedge of hollies that border the kitchen yard. At first I was too fascinated to realize that I had never seen them at such close range: their bodies were grey, not black as they always seemed, and I could even make out the darker tips of their enormous wings. I wondered wildly for a moment if they were going to land in our pasture, until it became obvious that the slow and solemn circle was on the ascent. Perhaps they had taken off from the watering hole out front—had been there for quite some time while I was inside and all oblivion, up to my ears in flour and colored sugar!
I stood transfixed as they mounted heavenward, as stately as a liturgical procession, with the occasional bird-shout of praise for good measure. And as they reached a certain height and came into a level with the slanting rays of the departing sun, an absolute miracle transpired. Each time the wheeling throng passed through the light, a wash of pure glory set them ablaze, running over them like the ripples of some heavenly watercourse, so that every wing was ‘sheathed with silver’ and every feather a flash of gold. On and on they soared, higher and higher, passing from shadow to splendor in a recurring parable of unearthly beauty.
Light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…
Soon after they forsook the charmed hold of light, and in a matter of a breathless moment or two they had unfurled themselves into perfect formation. And like a giant bracket with one leader at the fore and two lieutenants flanking him on either side, they passed swiftly over my head in reverent silence and glided away towards the south. I was shaken as I went back into the kitchen and regarded my late occupation. It seemed almost silly to reassume something as earthly as the baking of cookies after so heavenly a benediction. And yet, not silly. Sanctified, somehow, in the purifying glow of this holy Advent which appropriates all willing things unto itself and makes of a flight of birds or a flour-dusted kitchen a sacred thing and an intersection of the lay and the liturgical.
Philip and I later talked long by the fire of why I was so moved: why the advent of a flock of birds would bear such a palpable weight of glory to my waiting heart.
Why their shrill, metallic cries would seem the very voice of one calling in the wilderness.
“It’s because we see them every year,” he said, “and we know what they mean.”
That is precisely it. It’s that same paradox that Lewis talks about in The Screwtape Letters in speaking of our thrill at the change of seasons juxtaposed with our love of the familiar:
He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.
And that is precisely why Advent is such a present promise and Christmas a yearly miracle. If our own hopes and longings are a recurring theme, how much more so is God’s everlasting “Yes!” to our eternal “Why”?
The ‘Yes’ is Jesus, of course: Jesus in a manger; Jesus on a cross; Jesus coming again with power and great glory.
Jesus coming in familiarity and great particularity to our present need and thrilling us with a hope that defies reason.
The sandhill cranes were not late, any more than the God Who made them is late with the delivery on His promise. I’m so glad that they mingled themselves with my expectation this year and that Advent is the season they exulted over with their jubilant song.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Celestial fowles in the air,
Sing with your notes upon the height,
In firthes and in forests fair
Be mirthful now at all your might;
For passed is your dully night;
Aurora has the cloudes pierced,
The sun is risen with gladsome light,
Et nobis puer natus est.
Rorate coeli desuper, William Dunbar 1460-1520