St Margaret’s Church, Binsey, Eucharist on Sunday 27th January 2019 [Epiphany 4]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Psalm 19:1-6; Luke 4:14-21

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. [Psalm 19: 1]
The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted,
Where the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the fir trees are her house. [Psalm 104:16-17]

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 Today is the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. It falls in the weekend of the great British bird-count organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds , a survey which helps to tell us of the relative health of our songbird populations and of the natural environment in general. We know, for instance, that there has been a very serious decline in the numbers of sparrows, starlings and song thrushes, caused mainly by declining habitats and the use of pesticides, though some species such as  goldfinches appear to have bucked the trend as a result of people providing the right seeds for this beautiful finch.

  And mention of goldfinches brings us immediately back to the Epiphany theme, or rather to scenes in Western art of Our Lady holding the Christ-child. To take two examples, first an altarpiece by Luca di Tomme  painted before 1370 in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge  which the Christ-child clutches a goldfinch in his left hand, and secondly, much more famously, Raphael’s Madonna del cardellino (Madonna of the goldfinch) in the Uffizi  Gallery, Florence, painted in 1505-6 in which St John holds out a goldfinch to his cousin who reaches out to touch the bird. The clue to the connection of the bird to Christ is the red patch surrounding the bird’s beak, sometimes said to be blood from the thorn of the crown of thorns, or the blood of the Passion and thus  the bird prefigures what will happen to the Saviour at the end of his earthly life; in a happier vein there was a legend about Jesus as a child bringing clay birds to life and thereby signalling both the Resurrection and Christ as creator.

  Other passages connect birds with the divine, notably the ravens who feed the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:2-16) or indeed the dove sent out by Noah from the Ark after the flood and bringing back a leafy branch , and more especially the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s baptism. Our Gospel reading today, indeed, has Jesus quoting from Isaiah  and invoking that same soaring Spirit, Birds as creatures who inhabit the space between heaven and earth were inevitably regarded as special by other ancient peoples such as the Greeks: remember Aristophanes delightful comedy, The Birds. In both Holy Scripture and in sacred art angels are almost always depicted with the wings of eagles, and [Deutero-]Isaiah tells us that ‘those who wait upon the  Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles’ [Isaiah 40:31]. One of the most famous Medieval legends is that of St Francis preaching to the birds, a reminder that, for us humans, birds with their beauty and melodious song are special.

    Psalm 19, our psalm for today, is a supreme evocation of the God whom we worship in Trinity as creator of the Heavens; but the Lord of the Macrocosm is also, at the same time, Lord of the Microcosm, of all that exists, embracing not only of us humans but also of all the other animals. That is expressed in the first chapter of Genesis and also in the latter chapters of Job where we read of the stupid ostrich and graceful hawk (Job 39) and in my very favourite psalm, Psalm 104 we encounter the little birds nesting the cedars with the storks at their tops. These passages stand out because the birds are appreciated simply for themselves. Jesus  tells his disciples  (Matthew 6:26) to ‘Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them’.  However,  he also reminds us that birds are exploited by humans: (Matthew  10:29) ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.’-that ‘falling to the ground’ is indicative of the fowler’s net or his use of bird-lime.. And such exploitation was by no means confined to sparrows. The psalmist’s metaphor (Ps.91:3) reminds us of ‘the snare of the fowler’ while famously The Israelites in the wilderness gorged themselves on quails (Numbers 11:31-34) although the result of their greed seems to have been a ‘deadly plague.’

  Wild birds. large and small, continue to be cruelly exploited today. The goldfinch in the paintings brings to mind finches and other birds captured and kept in tiny cages for their song, a practice which,alas, still continues. Birds are shot  ‘for sport’ in vast numbers, and that includes migratory birds flying from the Tropics to Europe in Malta, Cyprus and elsewhere, and of course small birds are eaten in some countries as delicacies, their lives held cheap by us humans, just as were Matthew’s sparrows. Nowadays in contradistinction to our faith In God as Lord of Life, our own sophisticated Western societies rear millions of chickens in unspeakable conditions in vast factory units, in which the birds endure their short lives in misery as mere commodity. This horrific cruelty is surely sin of the worst kind. Contrast this with the way Our Lord speaks of himself as a mother hen guarding her brood (Luke 13:31-35).

  At least we no longer kill birds for their plumage; indeed the RSPB was set up in 1891 as the amalgamation of two societies both founded by women a couple of years before in order to oppose the trade in the feathers of Great Crested grebes, Kittiwakes,  Egrets and more exotically Birds of Paradise, killed in the cause of fashion , and the society has had great success in Britain over the past century or so to  give us a real appreciation of the wild birds around us; indeed it has become one of our largest and most popular charities and I invite you not only to participate in the birdwatch but to pray for its work today.

In chapter XIII of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people one of the king’s advisors famously compares human life to a small bird flying through a warm and convivial hall and out again into the night. The Faith of Christ seemed to him to offer the best hope in that winter darkness, hope of protection and salvation, as indeed it does. But that hope, indeed, extends to the sparrows and all the other birds and all other animals too, equally loved into life by the God who ‘flung the stars into space’. Holiness extends far beyond our own species( on earth for so brief a moment) and to the entire creation in this, God’s most mysterious cosmos.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen