I absolutely loved the study of Iconography while in seminary. Religious iconography entails the images or symbols associated with a specific person or event in the biblical narrative found in paintings, stained glass, and the like. A person “reads” iconography by knowing the symbols or the stories being depicted. For example, the early church used the story of Jonah and the great fish as a precursor of Jesus’ resurrection since Jonah sat in the belly of that fish for three days—just like Jesus in the tomb. So on the sides of ancient coffins you’ll encounter depictions of a huge sea creature with two legs hanging out of its mouth. Those in the know would immediately think of the resurrection.
In iconography, all saints have nimbuses—or halos—around their heads, and then a symbol given exclusively for them. For example, Peter has keys in his hands, since Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 16 that he’s giving him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. If you get close enough to the high altarpiece here at St. Mark’s, you’ll see that Peter is on the left side holding those keys. Our patron Mark,always has his symbol a winged lion nearby and sometimes a scroll and a quill since he was one of the gospel writers. You can see that lion at the feet of St. Mark on the right there at our altar.
A sermon based on Luke 13:31-35.
There’s an interesting iconographic round mosaic built into the altar of the Church of Dominus Flevit which is situated on the slope of the Mount of Olives looking over Jerusalem. The name of the church is Latin for “The Lord wept,” and its physical shape resembles a tear drop. Priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor describes the image on the front of the altar in this way: “It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.”
As you have likely deduced, it depicts the gospel we heard this morning, and the haloed chicken represents none other than Jesus himself. Encircling the medallion are the words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.” But there’s an interesting twist, and Taylor describes it this way, “[That] last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing.”
We know all to well about the foxes of this world. The sly ones who creep after any they can influence and devour. Those vulnerable chicks who are not nearly as powerful, or who’ve lost their way in this life. The foxes tend to work their magic by promising power—or perhaps fame or fortune or just a quick fix—to those helpless chicks, leading them further away from the protection of that mother hen. And it’s only so long before they go in for the kill.
Generally the Pharisees would not have been in cahoots with the likes of Herod, except of course they don’t want his conniving schemes being directed at them. They envied his power, and, I suspect, they liked the protection of his position even if it soiled them a little in the process. We know the types in our own government or our churches or in the business world or our cities wherever politics comes in to play creating strange bedfellows aligned against a more susceptible foe. We can point to the foxes keeping a close eye on the henhouse, recognizing it’s easier to conspire with them while ignoring their behavior if we’re not in their direct line of sight.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing.”
We were unwilling. There it is spelled out for us in black and white. We didn’t want our mother’s protection. We thought her too smothering, not wise to the ways of the world. Too, well, motherly. And so we went our own way chasing after the foxes.
Two interpretations important for today can be drawn from this passage. First, the easier, more Lenten themed one. Far too often we choose to go it our own way in life thinking God doesn’t have much to offer us, or that God is just being overprotective. We think we know better about life, relationships, what’s good for us, and what’s not. Or we do as Abraham did in our lesson from Genesis, and get anxious on God’s timing for our lives. You may recall that God had promised Abraham an heir when God first came to him, but it’s already been two years by today’s reading and good ol’ Abe began to get a little twitchy. He doesn’t think that God remembers, and so he looks for other options. “So, God, since we haven’t had a baby yet and both Sarah and I are getting older now, surely you meant that my servant, Eliezer, will be my heir when you made your promise to me a couple of years ago.”
“Nope,” God replies, and once again promises to Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son who will be their heir. And additionally his descendants will number more than the uncountable stars in the sky. We might believe that God has good things in store for us, but even the 40 days of Lent seem too long, never mind the 15 years or so it took for Sarah and Abraham to finally get pregnant with their son Isaac. We need to trust in the goodness of God.
Second, the harder one. This weekend we saw what the foxes of the world can do both nearby and on the other side of the world. Some may have seen the local news that vandals broke into St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ayer late last week, desecrating the altar area and leaving lit candles that luckily had been found before a fire began. We all hear the news about the massacre at those mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. The level of hate against others based on their religious beliefs in our time can certainly be described as a fox licking its chops before a meal. Far too often we stand idly by in such circumstances, afraid of drawing attention to ourselves and thinking it easier to just keep our heads down. But I believe we must continue to speak against the rise of hate based on where a person comes from or how they worship God. We must stand alongside our neighbors in order to show those foxes that while they may from time to time snarl and snap that together with God our Mother we will not allow the fear that they deal in to overwhelm us. Together we will declare that love is stronger than fear, and peace more powerful than hate.
So this Lent may we find our way back to those protective wings of Jesus our sacred Mother Hen. May we know that we are always welcome back into those loving arms regardless of where we have been, or in whose company we have traveled, or how far outside the coop we have wandered. May we be comforted and healed and protected by the one who would willing give his life while protecting us from harm. And may we know beyond even a sliver of a doubt that regardless of how long it takes to be accomplished it is indeed love and not fear that will have the last word. The deep and abiding love of God will sustain us. Amen.