Christ, our mother hen

The power of Christ is seen in a mother hen: warm, vulnerable, disarming. (Listen.)

Where is God? We see Russian troops invading Ukraine and desperate people trapped; we hear of Rohingya Muslims being persecuted and Burmese protestors mown down in the streets; we watch Israeli settlers seizing more and more Palestinian land by force; we read of military atrocities and police brutality and institutional violence; we know the reality of domestic abuse; and through it all we wonder: Where is God? Why isn’t God protecting the innocent? When will God punish the violent and keep vulnerable people safe?

There’s an old children’s song that goes like this: “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do …” The song is inspired by powerful Biblical images of God: the enraged she-bear in Hosea (13:8); the soaring mother eagle in Deuteronomy (32:11-12); the God who controls the wind and the waves; the God who sends plagues and armies to punish and destroy. These images depict God as domineering, warrior-like, ready and willing to punish evil: but when we look around, God doesn’t seem to be doing much of this. Instead, vulnerable people keep suffering, and the proud keep trampling over the people who get in their way.

People, perhaps, like Jesus. In God’s culture, says Jesus, “some who are last will be first, and some of the first will be last.” His words are a warning to the powerful: and the powerful respond with threats. “Get away from here,” the Pharisees say, “Herod wants to kill you.”

Now, if Jesus was the big strong god we’re sorta kinda hoping for, he’d laugh in their faces. Then he’d whip out a sword, or a plague, or some superhero power, and he’d slaughter those colluding Pharisees and then he’d kill Herod and all his lackeys for good measure. And then he’d take out every murderous dictator and every genocidal land-grabber and every corporate polluter and every abusive priest. He’d destroy those vicious right-wingers and the toxic left; then move onto savage drug lords and brutal family members and those thuggish Samaritans down the street. And once the world was neat and tidy and all our enemies gone, he’d sit on the throne in Jerusalem in a purple velvet robe while blood ran in rivers through the streets.

But perhaps we’ve noticed by now: Jesus is not this kind of god. Instead, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to continue his work of healing and casting out demons, then he’ll head to the place where the prophets have always been killed. And he compares Herod to a fox, and himself to a … chicken?!

Not the imperial eagle of Deuteronomy, with vicious beak and talons that rip foxes apart. Not the enraged she-bear of Hosea, who disembowels foxes with a swipe of her razor-sharp claws. Instead, he compares himself with a vulnerable and defenceless chicken. A mother hen, in fact, who longs to gather her brood under her wings, and who puts her own body between the fox and her chicks knowing full well she will be killed. And most of us here have seen what happens when a fox gets in the henhouse.

Why would Jesus say this? He’s the Son of God; he can call upon angel armies. So why would he compare himself to something so pathetic, so weak? Something which can’t protect anyone from predators on the prowl? Something which won’t kill our enemies?

This image of Jesus as mother hen, and these questions, go to the heart of the nature of Christ. And this is that, despite all those who say otherwise, Jesus refuses to be a strongman.

Sure, there are plenty of folk who will cast him into that image, and plenty of strongmen who claim to work in his name. We see it every day: manufactured pseudo-Christian angst against Ukrainians, or Muslims, or women needing abortions, or trans kids. For strongmen bring people together by turning other people into scapegoats. They rally the crowds by whipping up fear and uniting them against a common enemy. And, as Putin’s recent actions so clearly demonstrate, if we follow a strongman, we will never see an end to the cycles of fear, hatred and violence which rip our world apart.

But Jesus rejects this way of being God. He rejects the human lust for domination and control; he rejects violence and retaliation and retribution; and he rejects all their outworkings: military invasions and brutal policing and racism and homophobia and domestic abuse and all the other ways people try to exercise power over others.

Instead, Jesus offers peace: peace to his friends but most especially peace to his enemies.

This is not a military peace. As a first-century resident of a colonized land, he knew first hand what a military peace looks like: crippling taxes; deforestation and land degradation; marauding soldiers with absolute power to rape, kill and destroy; highways lined with the bodies of the crucified.

So Jesus’ peace is not the peace of domination, but the peace of disarmament. It’s the peace which demands we lower our defences, lay down our swords, risk vulnerability, and love. It’s the peace we know when we refuse to do violence ourselves, but instead “let our only experience of violence be in the suffering of it.”

And Jesus takes this even further. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” For Jesus’ peace means reaching out and seeking to shelter even those who would reject and destroy him: and this stance cost Jesus his life.

No wonder so few are willing to gather under her wings: for this peace, and this way, is dangerous. There is no guarantee of safety, no earthly security. Foxes and wolves circle hungrily, and all we have is Christ’s own body: comfortingly warm, wholeheartedly loving, totally unguarded, infinitely vulnerable. Yet as followers of the crucified and risen Christ, this is our call: To nestle in and trust. To let go of all the ways we try to protect our own lives, and to become part of the flock. To seek unity and solidarity with those who gather under her wings, and to reach out to the foxes, too. To turn away from retaliation and revenge, and to give our lives over to love.

As we do so, we might well be mocked, even attacked; we might well suffer for our stance; just as the mothering Christ was mocked and attacked, suffered and even died, “wings spread, breast exposed”. Yet in doing so, she disarmed the powers of violence, sin and death once and for all, and gathered us into her resurrection power.

For on the third day, her work was done: she was raised into newness of life. And this is the life into which we are called, the life of God’s kingdom-culture where violence is not an option and love reigns over all.

So in answer to the question, “Where is God?”, I say this: God-in-Christ is huddled with the victims, breathing comfort into their fear and tending their wounds. She is lamenting over the violence of the world, and grieving with all those who suffer. But she is also opening scarred arms towards her enemies and all who would destroy her, offering her loving embrace. She is germinating seeds in barren hearts and scorched earth; she is found in stranger and word and bread.

And she is in you, and in all who shelter under her wings. She is seen when you do good to those who hate you, and bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27-28). She comes more alive every time you refuse to retaliate, every time you choose the nonviolent path. She is the source of new life and all love; she is the flow of forgiveness and hope; she is the peace which surpasses understanding.

And as people gathered in her name, she is here among us now. So nestle in, take heart, be encouraged, and listen: for our mother is crooning over us in tenderness and joy … 

In a world of seemingly endless violence, here is the source of true courage, and transformation. Ω

Reflect: Simply spend some time in silence, nestling into our mother hen. Sense her warmth and softness. Listen for her gentle crooning, her beating heart. Rest in her love.

Notes and clarifications arising from the reflection:

  1. We recently reflected on loving our enemies. It does not mean being doormats, but instead means seeking their growth and integration – and that means setting healthy boundaries. Read here.
  2. We reflected that we are not in the situation of having bombs dropped on us. While we firmly believe in the non-violent way of Jesus, none of us at Sanctuary can honestly say how we would act in such a situation.

A reflection on Luke 13:31-35 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 13 March 2022 (Year C Lent 2) © Sanctuary 2022. “Let our only experience …” quotes the Rule of the Community of the Transfiguration in Teesdale. “Wings spread, breast exposed” is a phrase used by a number of commentators and preachers without citation; however, I believe it originated in a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor.

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