Of Chicks and Hens

For the reader of Scripture, one of the more humbling aspects of Biblical imagery is its tendency to use animals as metaphors for humans. After all, who really wants to be compared to sheep? But I imagine, too, that very few people would want to be assigned the fate of the goats. Nor is it flattering to be likened to the dull and stupid beasts that perish, or to wolves that deceive, or to wily foxes, or certainly not to dogs that eat the crumbs under tables.

So, we could do worse than to be compared to the avian offspring of a mother hen. Baby chickens are, after all, awfully cute. What grumpy person wouldn’t be somewhat cheered up by the image of a little chicken, covered in soft, downy feathers ambling about on unsteady legs?

And being compared to the brood of a hen is all the more compelling when we reflect on the protection that accompanies it. The hen is far more than a testy barnyard animal with ruffled feathers. The mother hen, newly delivered of offspring, has one purpose: to protect her young and to provide a blanket of warmth to nurture them. The mother hen spreads herself, almost sacrificially, over her little ones to shield them from harm. The mother hen is in the most wonderful sense deeply maternal and concerned with the welfare of her baby chickens. In the end, comparing ourselves to little birds under the all-encompassing care of a mother hen is not so bad.

Is it really a stretch, then, to imagine that Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem is in some sense directed to us, who were grafted onto the branch of Israel? Are we not, in some sense, a brood of fumbling, newly-birthed birds, whom God desires to gather under his wings when we have gone away from the nest ?

In his lament, it is as if Jesus, in despair over Jerusalem’s rejection of God’s will, is speaking as the voice of God. He is pronouncing words from his heavenly Father to all times and places, words from a mother hen to her disobedient brood. Lest we presume that Jesus’s mournful words are directed at only one specific city in the first century AD or to one group of people who persistently scorned God’s word of truth, we need only look around us now to see the continual repudiation of those who speak in God’s name.

How many of God’s prophets have been killed since Jesus’s lament over the Holy City? How many modern-day disciples of Jesus are ignored, rejected, and worse yet, murdered? It seems that Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem has continued its plaintive cry of sorrow and has followed, almost as a shadow side, the proclamation of the good news to the ends of the earth. Because wherever the good news has been preached, it has also been shunned.

And if we are little chicks in a time in which prophets and seekers after righteousness are stoned and killed, there is comfort and hope in the protective wings of God, who is concerned not only for the sparrows of this world but also for the little tiny chickens that need some direction in their journey of faith.

But if we are in some sense complicit with ancient Jerusalem in its renunciation of God’s truth, and if we are the heirs of the ones who stoned those sent by God, we are surely different from little, innocent chicks. We are not quite the cute progeny of a hen, snuggling our helpless, defenseless bodies under the incubatory cover of a protective parent.

If we’re honest, to be compared to the brood of a mother hen means that we are far closer to more self-sufficient chickens, those precocial birds who are capable of straying from the mother hen’s nest, soon after birth, while still returning back to the fold for warmth and nourishment.[1] In reality, these birds are not quite so guileless. They have garnered enough independence to have their feathers ruffled and engage in squabbles. They can also be cruel, as they nip at one another to vie for places of importance in the pecking order.

In an ideal animal world, the young chickens begin to imprint or bond themselves onto their mother soon after birth. In this nurturing relationship, the mother is a source of guidance and gentle discipline for her young. But it doesn’t mean that the chicks won’t rebel. And it doesn’t mean that the little birds won’t fail to bond with their maternal guide and wander away in errant behavior.

The mother hen, you see, does not control her young. She offers her body as a shield against harm and as necessary heat for growth, but at some point after birth, the mother hen must wean her chicks from herself. They must learn to survive in the wild world on their own without the safety of a nest to which they can return.

 If we are to adopt Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem as relevant to us and to our context, it is clear that we live in some kind of in-between time, between two worlds: the world of Jesus on earth and the world when he comes again. We live with the imprint of God on our world that was left by his only Son, an imprint that is frequently neglected and ignored. And yet we look ahead to a time to come in which that imprint’s full clarity is reclaimed.

In this in-between time, our house has truly been left to us. We journey between the time of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father and his coming again in power and great glory, to judge both the living and the dead.

And meanwhile, in this transitional time of the earthly journey, the deliberate wandering away from the shelter of the divine wings has led to chaos, darkness, and evil. God’s less-than-innocent little birds have ventured forth from the nest in willful disobedience, viciously biting one another, tearing one another to pieces, and making a mess of things. The pecking order has gone awry, so that some act as if there is only room for certain members of the brood to nest under the shadow of God’s wings. And God’s holy houses have been turned into arenas strewn with the carnage resulting from cruelty and hate.

God’s desire to gather his brood from all nations under his wings of maternal protection has been disrupted by vile distortions of God’s truth. The wings of divine protection have been wings contorted by wayward chicks into weapons to slaughter the innocent. And too many in God’s vast brood of birds have strayed far from the imprint of their heavenly Father.

Surveying the landscape, it might seem that God has indeed abandoned our house to us. It might seem that we are left impotent with our broken wings, unable to fly the coop when the fighting begins and escape to safety. It can appear as if there are no longer wings under which we can take refuge to shield us from the wretchedness around us.

But God doesn’t smother us with wings. God’s wings, broad and generous in love, honoring the dignity that comes with freedom, will not restrain us in the nest against our will. God has left us the gift of his imprint on us, but we must choose to claim it.

Even among the torn feathers and in spite of the horrid exclusions of the pecking order, Christ’s promise still remains. He will come again. And when he does, we must be prepared to greet him with confidence as the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord. This greeting will be unlike the sardonic “Hosannas!” of Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, which quickly morphed into cries of “Crucify him!” This greeting, our greeting, will be one that announces the fulfillment of God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

For the gentle, protective wings of the mother hen are still awaiting the return of the prodigal brood. The mark of the mother hen, offered to the offspring of this world so long ago, is still waiting to be recovered and realized in word and deed.

Betwixt and between, in our earthly sojourn, and in the holy mysteries of the Mass, we, too, adopt Christ’s plaintive plea over Jerusalem: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” As earth and heaven meet in this glorious banquet, we turn back to God’s nest and offer up our cry for God to gather again that aimless brood, hobbling with their broken wings amid torn feathers and wounded bodies.

Responding to Christ’s lament with our own, we turn back to the heavenly roost with our own entreaty: Oh, Christ, how we want to see you again, face to face! Oh, Heavenly Dove, how we long to dwell once again, all nations, all broods, under the span of your wings. Oh, Father, take our house and make it yours again.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
10 March 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] Wolter, Michael, Wayne Coppins, and Christoph Heilig, The Gospel According to Luke (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 205.

Posted on March 17, 2019 .