Gathered under her wings

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”.

The image of God as a mother is not actually an uncommon one – even if it is generally underused in our liturgical and devotional materials. The fierceness and devotion of maternal love; the physical and spiritual self-giving of childbearing and breast feeding – people throughout the ages have seen a glimpse of God in their experience of mothers and mothering.

So Jesus’ use of a maternal image to describe his love for the people of Jerusalem and his desire to protect and nurture them is not surprising.

What’s surprising is that the mother he chooses is a chicken. He could have echoes the prophets and psalmists, naming a majestic eagle guarding her nest or a mother bear defending her cubs or human holding her baby to her chest. But the mother he identifies with, when facing down “that fox”, Herod, is a chicken.

Chickens can not expect to have much success against foxes.

Herod was a dangerous man. The historic record, beyond only the Bible, paints a picture of a violent despot who ruled on Rome’s behalf for his own pleasure and power. His claim to the throne was tenuous and he was fearful of uprising and revolution. Rome required him to keep the peace – he kept it through a reign of oppressive terror, murdering those who, like John the Baptist, appeared to threaten his authority, his control.

When the pharisees warn Jesus about Herod, his response is not fear or anger. He neither runs nor promises to retaliate. His response is to continue on his way, steadfast and sure. His reply to Herod is clear – “I will continue doing what I am doing until it is time for me to stop because I am not afraid of you. You are afraid of me. But you are not my concern.”

And with that, he turns his attention from Herod to Jerusalem where he sees a people in danger.   These are the people he has been sent to care for – to heal and forgive and set free. Even though they will reject him, even though they will choose the security of what they know over the freedom he offers. Even though he knows where his path will lead, knows what his end will be.

Jesus identifies with a mother hen because he is not going to fight to protect his children. He is going to die to protect them.

But, even knowing all of this, Jesus’ response is compassion, no matter the cost.

To have compassion is to do more than have pity for someone or sympathy with someone. It’s more, even than just to care about someone. It’s to feel with them; to suffer with them – com-passion. It’s to make room in your heart for them as well as yourself.

And it seems to me that compassion is what underpins all of Jesus’ ministry – underpins his very life. The incarnation of God in Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s compassion – Jesus is God’s heart made flesh among us to suffer with us. Jesus had compassion for the outcast; compassion for the sick; compassion for the lost; even compassion for those who would do him harm. Over and over again, Jesus enters into the need, the suffering, the questioning, the fear of others. And he invites them into his own life, his own heart – his own death and resurrection.

That’s what the season of Lent is – it is the church’s expression of this invitation into the heart of Jesus, into compassion. For 40 days, we prepare ourselves to walk with Jesus in his last days, to enter into his suffering. We seek to join with him as he spreads his wings and gives up his life for the love of God’s people. But compassion with Jesus takes more than giving up chocolate or adding an additional prayer to our day. It requires making space in our hearts not simply for his suffering but for all the suffering he carries on behalf of the world; of all his beloved chicks whether they are under his wings or not.

And there is so much suffering. Our world is wracked in pain and we are bombarded with it – in the news and on the streets, pain expressed and explored in books and theatre and music. And then there is the suffering we only glimpse – the suffering that goes on quietly behind closed doors or carefully smiling faces. And under all of that there is our own, private suffering – whether great or small. And there is simply too much for us to bear – our very hearts would break.

But if we are willing – if we accept the invitation to be sheltered, safe under the open wings of our mother Jesus, something remarkable happens. Our hearts are broken – and we discover that is in the breaking open that they are healed. Jesus’ compassion becomes our compassion. Jesus’ love becomes our love. Jesus’ self-giving death, our death. And Jesus’ risen life becomes our new life.

The foxes are still there, at least for now. But they have lost their power. When we dwell under Jesus’ wings; when we make his heart our heart; when our hearts are broken open in love – When God is with us – the foxes do not get to have the last word. The foxes do not get to say when we are done.

Chickens may not be able to expect much success against foxes but Jesus defines success differently than most people. We defeat the foxes by not allowing their world to be the only world; by rejecting the rules of their game in favour of God’s rules. We defeat the foxes by stretching out our wings, emboldened by our confidence in Jesus’ love for us and empowered by our compassion, in him, for all God’s people.

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