So the other day I was drawn to that portion of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus allows his true feelings for Jerusalem to be seen. It’s a poignant moment. He can see that the city and its leaders are hardening in their opposition to him. Yet his love for them remains. He still wishes to reach them.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times have I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!” (Mt 23:37).
This passage is striking because of the tender love Jesus’ expresses, even toward a people who reject him. But there is one aspect of this verse that struck me most profoundly.
Jesus likens his tender love for Jerusalem – which is to say for all of us – to the love of a mother. To a hen and the great, fearless, tender love hens show for their young. (Have you ever seen a hen defend her young from predators?)
We have to pause before this image and take it in. Jesus is saying that he desires to gather his children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. What does this image tell us?
If you’ve never watched a video of how a hen watches over her young, you should. When they are very young and defenseless, a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Tiny chicks, 3, 4, 5 at a time can all nestle themselves beneath the mother hen’s wings. For warmth, for safety, or just to be close to the mother and to one another. Close in their identity as small chicks of a strong mother.
It’s rather incredible that Jesus would choose this metaphor to describe his love for Jerusalem. In Matthew’s Gospel, he has already revealed himself in terms of the divine name (“I am. Do not fear.” Mt. 14); as the Messiah (“You are the Christ…” Mt 16). And he has revealed the fullness of his glory in the Transfiguration (“He was transformed before them and his face shown like the sun…” Mt 17). Now he reveals himself under the traits of a mother. A mother who tenderly gathers her little ones under her wing, to warm them, protect them, forge in them a kind common identity.
I was thinking of this passage as I went to church today. Rather, the passage was still in me, unfinished; its meaning not yet fully grasped. It had struck me as profound, though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, how to grasp it, how to penetrate through to its inner meaning.
Then I found myself in church today, sitting behind a young mother. Her husband was to her left. Two of their young children were sitting with him. The mother had a kind of shawl over her shoulders. She was breastfeeding their third child. At a certain point the child was finished. The mother drew the child out from under the shawl and plopped her up against her shoulder. The child had a look of complete rest and safety upon her face. Utter contentment. Almost intoxication. So shielded and cloaked in safety and intimacy, so satisfied, so filled as to know not a single care or concern in the world. The child was nourished. Fed. Loved. Safe. Known. At perfect rest.
And a psalm verse came to me: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. Like a weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.” (Ps. 130:2)
In a twinkling of the heart, I knew this verse and this scene was like the inner register of the passage I had been pondering from Matthew 23. Here too the psalmist is portraying God’s love through the image of a mother’s love. As a hen shows motherly love and protection to her brood, as a mother – as this mother right in front of me – shows all the power and tenderness and protection and provision toward her little child, so does Jesus long to do for us. So does the Father long to do for us. So does the pulsing heart of the Trinity long to do for us.
And I think of Mary and her role in the life of Christians. Mary is an image of the maternal love of the Trinity. But I suppose what the Holy Spirit is saying through these two passages is that God himself loves with the tenderness of a mother. Every tenderness, every gesture of protection and intimacy and provision that a mother’s heart can show – that even Mary’s heart can show – this very love is already found, first, in the heart of the Father, in the heart of the Son, in the heart of the Holy Spirit.
Lord Jesus, Christ, son of the living God, you reveal the tender love, the maternal love, the providing and protecting and intimate love of the Trinity. You want to gather me in this love. To protect and nourish me in this love. Amen. I trust in your love. I take refuge in your love, in this agape which wants to gather me like a small chick in the brood of the Father. Have mercy on me, a sinner.