By Joshua Paetkau
“Go tell that fox, ‘Behold, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” (Luke 13:32)
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13: 34)
The chicken, particularly the female of the species, occupies a peculiar place in the storytelling traditions of the Western world. The Little Red Hen has been immortalized in the imagination of young readers as a paragon of industrious behaviour, and maybe just a little unbearable with her incessant questions. “Who will help me plant the wheat? Who will help me water the wheat?
In the story of Henny Penny (or Chicken Little) and Foxy Loxy, a paranoid poultry gathers her friends together to inform the king that the world is about to end. In some versions of the story the unlucky friends are devoured by a devious fox, while in others they do finally meet with the King. I would ask you to keep these parables in mind, while we travel through Lent and come across another curious fox-and-hen story on our way to meet the King. On the way we may encounter other creatures, each one teaching us something about its creator.
Our Lenten journey began last week, but in truth it begins over 2,000 years ago when a young man of the tribe of Judah in the nation of Israel wandered off into the desert for a 40-day fast. The emblem of the tribe of Judah, what an anthropologist today might call its animal totem, was the lion. A prophecy recorded in Genesis 49 describes the dying Jacob calling his son Judah a lion’s cub. “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come, and the obedience of the nations shall be his.”
The lion, for the ancient Hebrews as for us and for many peoples, was King; a symbol of kingship, of power and authority. A descendant of kings, the man we follow into the desert was raised as the son of a manual laborer and a young woman in the town of Nazareth.
Jesus, freshly washed in the baptismal waters of repentance of the Jordan River, set off into the desert. He stepped into the past, retracing the wilderness journey of his ancestral people. He stepped into the future, to learn the trials and temptations that would face him as a man and as a leader of his people.
The Mi’qmaq people, the First Nation to occupy the Gaspé peninsula, might recognize in this wilderness journey a vision quest; a time when a person engages in a period of fasting and meditation and goes out into the wilderness to seek a vision; to find purpose, direction, and meaning for their lives. An aspect of these vision quests is often an animal that serves as a spirit guide; a symbol of a particular wisdom or value. The dog, for example, is a reminder of loyalty and unconditional love. The lynx is a guide to what is elusive, rare, and hard to hold on to. In the teaching and stories of the Anishnaabe people, from Western Canada, the bear has always been a symbol of protection for the way a mother bear will fiercely protect her cubs.
This teaching has inspired the Bear Clan Patrol of Winnipeg — a volunteer group that works in the area of community safety for all. They are like a neighborhood watch, but with a special emphasis on the safety and support of the homeless, the drug addicts, the sex workers, of all people — not just the homeowners. With the Bear Clan Patrol, an ancestral teaching is extended into a living context, the teaching is embodied. The words of an old story become flesh, community, life.
The mother bear fiercely protects her cubs, and we learn from her example. We must protect the cubs, the children. Who are these children? Who are the vulnerable among us? Who are the ones who need guidance and compassion that they might grow into the full stature of Christ? Who are the children of God?
Jesus, in his wilderness fast, goes into the heart of his ancestral story. It is the story of a people who are hungry and thirsty for food, for freedom, for justice — for God. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus will later declare in his sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be filled.” Here, in the wilderness of Lent, he learns that hunger, he experiences in his body that thirst for God that will be with him all the way to the Cross.
In the wilderness the ancient Israelites had put God to the test. “Can you do it, God?” they had clamored, “can you feed us?” In Jesus, God, the very Word of God become flesh, is again put to the test. “Command these stones,” says the devil, sly as a fox, “to become bread.” Moses had struck a rock and water had gushed forth for the Israelite people. Jesus could but speak to the stones and prove his greater power by commanding them to become loaves of bread for himself.
The temptation of the stones is a temptation of physical hunger, but it is also a temptation of spiritual pride. In his response Jesus affirms the great gift given to the people of Israel in the wilderness; the revelation of the law at Mt. Sinai. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus may hunger for food, but he hungers more desperately for justice, for righteousness, for the promises of God. And God promises a future in which the children of faith, the children of justice, the citizens of heaven, will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Jesus’ statement of faith in the sufficiency of God’s Word is echoed in the ordination vows of the Anglican church: “I believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” Jesus, tempted to prove his power and satisfy his bodily needs at one turn — kill two birds with one stone — chooses not to overturn the stone tablets of the law. He chooses to uphold the way God has worked among his people in the past. The heavenly Father has always provided, and Jesus will wait upon that provision.
Even at the very end, when the bread that feeds the hungry is taken, not from the stone of the law but from the body of the Word made flesh, his prayer to his Heavenly Father will be, “Not my will but yours be done.”
As he stepped into the desert he stepped into the past, and into the future, but most of all into the presence of the Eternal Father whose love for his Beloved Son was, and is, and shall be from everlasting to everlasting. The one who builds up and gathers and protects and does not destroy. The waters of baptism, which had washed the bodies of so many repentant sinners, had at last covered the body of the perfect Word of God; the heart which called out to all the broken hearts of those repentant sinners. The one who continues to call, in the wilderness of all our lives: “How I have longed to gather you together as mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
In Jewish, as well as Roman, political thought of the early first century, lions and foxes represented two types of authority or power. To the Romans the lion was a symbol of force, and the fox a symbol of fraud. The Roman Senator Cicero, writing to his wayward son Marcus, said, “let us remember that we must have regard for justice even towards the humblest. Now the humblest station and the poorest fortune are those of slaves; and they give us no bad rule who bid us treat our slaves as we should our employees: they must be required to work; they must be given their dues. While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible.”
Jewish thought took a slightly different view. Lions were held to be a symbol of true authority, while foxes were deceivers, destroyers, and altogether inferior. “Be a tail among lions rather than a head among foxes,” said Rabbi Mesya, by which he meant that we should imitate those of good and upright character.
When Jesus called Herod Antipas a fox, then, he was saying that Herod was not a fit ruler, and that Herod — who considered himself a great nation-builder — was ultimately leading his people on a path to destruction. The natural thing to have done next would be for Jesus to assert his own claim to leadership, calling on the lion emblem of his ancestral tribe. Instead he chooses to compare himself to a chicken, a mother hen.
We must have regard for justice even toward the humblest. The mother hen, the slave. On this day we celebrate, as well as the Second Sunday of Lent, the Feast of St. Patrick. Patrick, born in Roman Britain, was sold into slavery in Ireland. He worked there as a caretaker of animals until his escape. Patrick would later return as the Apostle to Ireland, bringing the message of Christ to the Irish. The life-giving, transformative Word of God has this power. It causes us to believe, to find the good in others, to seek and hunger and thirst — desperately, but without despair — for justice.
The obedience of the nations means, and can mean, nothing other than this; that the desire for true, just relationships between people and nations become realized. That the Word becomes flesh in our lives and in our relationships. The Word of God is like a seed to be planted in soil that is hungry and thirsty for that Word.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” Jesus said, “it abides alone. But if it dies it will produce an abundant harvest of new lives.”
And who will help me plant the wheat? And who will help me water the wheat? And who will help me grind the wheat into flour?
And who will help me eat the bread?
Jesus offers the bread, that is, offers himself, to us and for us. He gathers us together by his mighty word, his everlasting work, with his wings of love spread around his children.
The Rev. Joshua Paetkau is incumbent of the Anglican Parish of New Carlisle and Chaleur Bay, Quebec, Canada.