Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness––The Hen (1939)
A homily preached on the Second Sunday of Lent at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, WA (Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 / Luke 13:31-35)
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid. Your story is not over.
It will continue long into the future.”
But Abram can’t believe this. “I have no offspring, no heirs. How on earth will my story continue?”
And God says, “Step outside, and look at the stars––more than you could ever count. So shall your descendants be.”
This kind of thing happens a lot in the Bible. God makes a way where there is no way. God turns nothing into something. God makes a barren marriage the seed of countless generations.
“Great!” says Abram. “But how can I know for sure?”
So God makes a covenant with Abram––a promise binding Abram’s story to God’s story, a promise to be with Abram’s people through the long journey of time.
Now we may find their covenant ritual pretty weird: cutting three large animals in half––a heifer, a goat, and a ram––but that was a common practice in the ancient Near East. The two parties making a covenant would walk between the cloven parts of animals, as if to say, if either party severs the covenant binding us together, there will be blood.
If one of the parties is human and the other is divine, we should not be surprised to find an uncanny dimension to the ritual, as there is in this story. Abram falls into the altered state of a deep sleep, and then God seems to pass between the cloven animals in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, anticipating the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud which will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
This sense of covenant with God, a binding relationship enduring through all the ups and downs of Jewish history, is the central dynamic of the biblical narrative. And by the time of Jesus, twenty centuries after Abram looked up at those stars, the city of Jerusalem had been well-established as the geographical and spiritual center of that ancient covenant, because it contained the Holy of Holies, the enclosed void believed to be the earthly dwelling place of the Eternal. The Holy of Holies, situated within the Temple on the city’s highest place, was so sacred that it was forbidden to everyone except the High Priest, who could only enter it once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer sacrifice to the Most High.
Jerusalem’s sacred stature is affirmed many times in the Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms:
Blessed is the Lord out of Zion,
who dwells in Jerusalem. (Psalm 135:21)
As the hills stand about Jerusalem,
so does the Lord surround God’s people,
from this time forth for evermore. (Psalm 125:2)
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:5-6)
Jesus shared his people’s devotion to Jerusalem as central to both their self-understanding and their ultimate destiny. It was the place where earth meets heaven, where the blessings of God’s ancient promise would be most clearly manifested and fulfilled. And however Jesus thought his own mission would work out, he expected its definitive climax to come in the holy city.
Jerusalem is mentioned 139 times in the New Testament, and 90 of those mentions occur in Luke. His gospel might be called The Journey to Jerusalem. During Jesus’ entire ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s kingdom, Jerusalem is so often on his mind. Every step of his itinerant life takes him closer and closer to that place of destiny. As Luke puts it, “his face was turned toward Jerusalem.”
But when he draws near his goal, some Pharisees try to warn him away. “King Herod wants to kill you,” they said. “Get out of here while you still can.” But for Jesus there is no turning back. “It is necessary for me to journey on,” he tells them. “today and tomorrow and the day after that, because Jerusalem is where a prophet must go to meet his fate.”
So on he goes, eventually making the long climb up from Jericho, through a series of barren hills, until he reaches the Mount of Olives, a high point where suddenly the holy city and its great Temple come into view, stretching across a ridge on the opposite side of a ravine called the Kidron valley.
Have any of you been there, and seen that view? It is a stunning sight. And we might imagine the thrill that Jesus and his disciples must have felt at seeing the end of their long pilgrimage, right there in front of them.
Five years ago, I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain, and I remember vividly the moment when I first saw the goal of my journey, the towers of Santiago’s cathedral, from the top of a hill a few miles away. Pilgrims call that hill the Mount of Joy, because joy is what you feel when you see for the first time the place which has pulled on your soul for so many days and so many miles.
So as Jesus descends the slope of the Mount of Olives toward the eastern gate of Jerusalem, he stops for a moment to take in the view. But joy is not what he feels. According to Luke, “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.”
Why does Jesus weep? Is it for himself, because he knows that this is where he is going to die? Or is he weeping for Jerusalem, because it is the killer, instead of the fulfiller, of God’s dream for human flourishing? The name Jerusalem means “city of peace”––salem means peace, like the Hebrew shalom and the Arabic salaam. God desired it to be a place of loving community, a just community, a neighborly community where divine blessings would be freely and gratefully shared with one another.
But the holy city was in fact closer to hell than heaven––divided by warring factions demonizing one another, distorted by vast inequalities of wealth, poisoned by fears and tribal hatreds, governed by political and economic forces resistant to change, and blinded by an obsolete pretension of being the greatest nation on earth.
From his vantage point on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gazes upon the broken and faithless city––and he weeps. Then he says, “If you had only known the things that lead to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
This compelling moment is commemorated by a tear-shaped church erected on the slope where Jesus had stood. Most churches are designed to face east, toward the rising sun, but this one faces west, toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did when he lamented the sad state of the City of Peace. The window behind the altar is made of clear glass, so that the worshipper can contemplate the same view which filled Jesus’ eyes with tears. The name of the church is Dominus Flevit: The Lord wept.
What if Jesus had not wept there? What if he had looked at the faithless city, so unloving and so unjust, and been filled with anger and judgment? What if the church were called, The Lord raged? There was plenty to be angry about in the way people lived together and treated each other in that city. But the heart of Jesus was all compassion. He came to show us the God of mercy.
And in today’s gospel, when he responds to those Pharisees who urge him to avoid Jerusalem at all costs, Jesus gives perhaps his most startling self-description in all the gospels:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Altar mosaic, Dominus Flevit church, Jerusalem
Look at the image of the altar mosaic in Dominus Flevit. Notice the golden halo behind the hen’s head. This is a holy creature, showing us God in a new way, as a maternal figure, protective yet vulnerable. Not the lion of Judah, or a mighty eagle, but a barnyard chicken! Her chicks don’t seem to be paying much attention to their mother. They are liable to wander off at any moment and get into all sorts of mischief. But Jesus their mother spreads her wings wide, trying her best to gather them in and keep them safe.
There’s another animal in today’s gospel––the fox. That’s what Jesus calls Herod––a fox. Now as leaders go, Herod was pretty deplorable. He was an insecure bully who didn’t care much about the divine covenant or the holiness of Jerusalem. He only cared about himself. And he was little more than a puppet, easily manipulated by a foreign power (it begins with an “R”).
Why does Jesus call him a fox? Did he mean that Herod was cunning? Perhaps. But in such close juxtaposition with the hen and her chicks, it seems more likely that Jesus was describing Herod as a predator. What a predator does is find a way to isolate and attack the most vulnerable. He divides his victims from the wider community, and then he attacks. If you’re a defenseless chick, a fox is very bad news!
Jesus wants to protect the chicks from the fox, but he refuses to do that with violence. That would only make him a mirror image of the fox. As Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says in her memorable commentary on this passage:
“Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”
For God so loved the world, that he gave the dearest portion God’s own self, that we might not perish. Self-offering for the sake of others, however costly, is the divine way.
When I first heard about the New Zealand massacre, I had just been reading a gospel commentary comparing the protective hen to Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook who died while shielding her little students from the bullets with her own body.
In times like these, the gospel gets very real, and we are confronted with an immediate choice: do we stand with the fox, or with the hen? God forbid that any of us should ever be in the line of fire, but even at a safe distance, we can raise our voices to resist violence, hatred, bigotry and fear. We can spread our wings to shield the vulnerable.
When our leaders echo the rhetoric of white supremacists by referring to immigrants as “invaders,” we need to shout, “No more!” When defenseless children are taken from their parents and put into cages, we need to insist, “Not in our country!” When the toxins of tribalism inspire violence even in havens like New Zealand, we need to confess our divisive ways and beg forgiveness.
As St. Paul urges us, let us all be imitators of Christ, spreading our wings in welcome, offering warmth, protection, shelter and love without qualification. The foxes of the world want to scatter us, but God yearns to gather every single one of us from the places of isolation, alienation, division and rejection, and bring us home to the welcome table.
Look again at the mosaic of the Christlike hen. She is circled by the Latin text of Jesus’ saying, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” At about 10 o’clock on the circle is the verb congregare, “to gather.” You see, a congregation consists of those who have been gathered safely under the wings of Christ. You have been gathered under the wings of Christ. And we have all committed in our baptism to spread our own wings in turn, and offer our own selves––our souls and bodies––for the sake of the world.
Now just beneath the chicks, there is one more phrase. It is what Jesus says just after the text in the outer circle: et noluisti (“and they were not willing!”). Jesus wants to gather the scattered, but they refuse. For whatever reason––obstinance, foolishness, blindness, or plain old sin––they just won’t be gathered. They were not willing. And that troubling phrase, et noluisti, explains why Jesus wept as he gazed at Jerusalem, Those word are set apart from the rest of the text, and instead of swimming in the gold of eternity like the other words, they are drenched in a deep red color, the color of blood––echoing the message of that primitive covenant ritual with the butchered animals in Genesis. If you don’t find a way to live together in love, there will be blood.
Jesus offers a better way. He did it in his life and teaching, he did it on Calvary’s hill. The hen’s outstretched wings are like the arms of Jesus on the cross, still trying to gather us in with his last breath. “Father, forgive them,” he prays. Even as he is dying on the cross, Jesus is trying to gather God’s children and bring them home.
In Franco Zefferelli’s 1977 film, Jesus of Nazareth, there is an extraordinary moment during the crucifixion sequence. It is not literally scriptural––the screenwriter invented it––but it expresses so well the heart of the gospel message.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is allowed by a centurion to pass through security to approach her dying son. Then Mary Magdalene tries to follow right behind her, but the centurion stops her.
“Please,” says Magdalene. “I’m one of the family.”
Hearing this, the mother of Jesus turns around sharply, clearly stung by the impudence of this outsider, this woman of questionable reputation, pretending to be related to Jesus. We imagine her thinking, “How dare she try to intrude on our intimate circle!” The centurion asks Mary, “Is she family?” And at that moment, the mother of Jesus has to decide whether she’s going to be tribal and exclusive, or whether she is willing to embrace the welcoming way of her son.
After a brief hesitation, she nods, but it’s not easy for her. “Yes,” she says. “She is one of the family.” And at that moment, at the foot of the cross, beneath Christ’s outstretched wings, the welcoming and sheltering community of mutual and unconditional love is born into the world.