Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, page 201; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The mother hen 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.
On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his ministrations.
Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Two-thirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares. Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet?
Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.
But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
and you were not willing!" The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing.
The same lament appears in Matthew’s Gospel, but Jerusalem does not mean the same thing to him that it does to Luke. Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah learns in the temple that he and Elizabeth will have a child. Mary and Joseph bring their own child there when the time comes. Simeon and Anna deliver their prophecies there, and Jesus returns when he is 12 years old to take his place among the teachers of Israel.
All told, Luke mentions Jerusalem 90 times in his Gospel, while all the other New Testament writers combined mention it only 49 times. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Luke loves the place -- so rich in history and symbol, so dense with expectation and fear. Jerusalem is the dwelling place of God, the place where God’s glory shall be revealed (Isa. 24:23). It is also the place where God is betrayed by those who hate the good and love what is evil (Mic. 3:2). Nothing that happens in Jerusalem is insignificant. When Jerusalem obeys God, the world spins peacefully on its axis. When Jerusalem ignores God, the whole planet wobbles.
If the city were filled with hardy souls, this would not be a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, it is filled with pale yellow chicks and at least one fox. In the absence of a mother hen, some of the chicks have taken to following the fox around. Others are huddled out in the open where anything with claws can get to them. Across the valley, a white hen with a gold halo around her head is clucking for all she is worth. Most of the chicks cannot hear her, and the ones that do make no response. They no longer recognize her voice. They have forgotten who they are.
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world --wings spread, breast exposed -- but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.
But a hen is what Jesus chooses, which -- if you think about it --is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.
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.
Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her -- wings spread, breast exposed -- without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.