Jesus asks people to do many things in the Gospels. Some of his exhortations are not very straightforward: enter by the narrow gate, bear good fruit. Some seem meant to throw us on the grace of God because, try though we may, we will not obey: judge not, love your enemies, do not lay up treasures for yourself on earth. Jesus says very clearly, directly, and unambiguously, "follow me," but we'll struggle all of our lives to do so.
I decided to grasp onto one suggestion I could handle: Consider the birds (Matt. 6:26). I love that Jesus asks us to do this: Go outside, get off the Internet, watch birds.
Instead of simply sitting on my porch, breathing deeply, and considering the birds that landed in my tree, I decided to read everything I could find on ten birds mentioned in the Bible. (If you knew me, you know I have to make a project more complicated than necessary.)
I really considered the birds. I learned about their mating, eating, and social habits. I looked up what they have meant symbolically across cultures, throughout time, in Christian iconography. I took them seriously as characters in biblical stories. Once you start looking, you will find birds everywhere—in your bushes, of course, but also in poetry, painting, and song. Take for example, Christmas Carols—the partridge, the French hen, the two turtledoves.
I found some precedent for my project in the medieval bestiaries, stories and illustrations about animals included in old Psalters and prayer books. Based in part on verses like Job 12: 7-10—"Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you"—the writers and illustrators believed every animal, every plant, every created thing had something to teach those who were carefully and faithfully paying attention.
Though these lavishly illustrated manuscripts are pre-scientific and contain very medieval moral lessons, I like the vital attention these Christians gave to the beasts—the curiosity with which they observed them—as if they were purveyors of some sort of wisdom or knowledge not readily accessed by humans. They watched closely, as if observing them might unlock some window we normally keep shuttered. Jesus says, "Consider the birds." Surely, there is something for us to learn from them.
We are such thoroughly interdependent creatures; yet, we have often staked our lives, and the life of the planet, on the anthropocentric notion that we alone are truly important to God—the crowning glory of creation. Some of the first words out of God's mouth are "let the birds fly…let them multiply" (Gen. 1:20, 22). Jesus tells us that not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Matt. 10:29).
God loves the world—every single part of it, the entire whole of his creation. The images of God's redemption throughout the Bible include the land, lush and thriving. God sends rain and the desert blooms. If we have a special role as highly conscious creatures, it involves a greater degree of responsibility than is required of rabbits and seals. God asks us to help take care of what God loves.
God as Vulture and Pigeon
Of all the birds I explored (researched, watched, contemplated, stalked), some of the most striking revelations came from the vulture and the dove.
In Minnesota, where I live, the only vultures I see are turkey vultures. They have bald red heads. It looks like their skin has been peeled off and their whole head is some raw gaping wound. I have always thought of them as ugly, violent, dark, and dreadful, when in fact vultures, unlike most creatures, rarely hurt a living thing. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that could otherwise spread diseases. They have uniquely strong digestive juices that kill bacteria and nasty pathogens. The Mayans revered the vulture, referring to them as death eaters. This struck them as a good, godlike thing. It makes sense. We need something to eat death, digest it, and rid it of its toxicity. Vultures stare death in the face and fear it not at all. It goes through their bodies and comes out harmless.
The Hebrew word nesher is often translated in our English version of the Bible as eagle, but most scholars agree that "griffon vulture" is at least an alternative, if not a more fitting translation. This changes the feel of some popular verses, to put it mildly. It is very different to think of being "lifted up on vultures wings" (Ex. 19:4) or that they who wait on the Lord shall mount up with wings like vultures (Isa. 40:31). Vulture begins to seem like a rich metaphor for God—a God that can take everything in and make it clean—a God that can make even death, nontoxic.
There is a breathtaking range of vulture species across the world—some conventionally handsome, some oddly beautiful. When I started looking around, I realized pretty quickly that my ideas about vultures were extremely narrow and confined by my limited experience. It was an important lesson in discovering beauty where I hadn't seen it before.
The dove, unlike the vulture, is almost universally loved. In each of the four Gospels, the Spirit of God shows up at Jesus' baptism in the form of a dove. In the popular imagination this Holy Spirit Dove is snow-white. The bird at the baptism, however, was very likely a rock dove, prevalent in Palestine. Rock doves are grey with an iridescent green and violet neck, more commonly known as pigeons. Though most of us have separated categories for pigeons (dirty) and doves (pure), ornithologists—the bird scientists—will tell you, the names are interchangeable.
The rock dove is the ancestor of our domestic pigeon—the kind that gather in our parks, nest in our eves, leave droppings all over our buildings and sidewalks. Pigeons are often considered pests. Cities have tried exterminating them, usually unsuccessfully. How strange that the symbol for the Holy Spirit has become the symbol of urban filth.
It's a rich subject for our contemplation. The dove has become a bit bland as far as Christian symbols go—something polite and petite and pure. Maybe this has worked to deprive us of a more robust view of the Holy Spirit. Isn't it sort of limiting to imagine the Spirit of God as something dainty and white?
Pigeons are ubiquitous, on the streets. They are wherever we are—in some of the worst places we have made (think: our neglected projects and abandoned buildings) and some of the best (art museums, parks, Rome's piazzas). They won't leave us alone. What if the Spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often disdained?
Maybe the Spirit of God is so common—wherever life is, that we don't recognize it or necessarily respect it. This might explain why we are often unkind, ungenerous, ungrateful, and destructive. The Spirit of God is among us, the Holy Spirit, and we often don't even notice it because we are looking for something pure and white. The Spirit of God, though, is more complicated than that. It's fuller and richer and everywhere.
The Thing with Feathers
Considering the birds is different than considering rocket science or technology; it gets you thinking different thoughts about creatures, creation, and the Creator.
A bird's flight is amazing. It can grow a new feather in two weeks. It can be wiped out so easily that many birds are on the brink of extinction. Without human influence (habitat destruction, climate change), the expected rate of extinction for birds would be around one species per century. Some reports say we are losing ten species a year.
In the Aeneid, the pathway to hell is Averno—in Greek, this means, a place without birds. Where would we be without the birds of the Bible, the birds in our backyards, the birds we sing about in the "Twelve Days of Christmas?" God has surrounded us with birds, and they've become powerful symbols for our faith. As Emily Dickinson wrote, "hope is the thing with feathers."
Debbie Blue is the author of Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon Press). She is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Blue's sermon podcasts are listened to by subscribers around the world, and her essays, sermons, blogs, and reflections on Scripture have appeared in a wide variety of publications.