I’m pretty sure I’m sensing signs of spring. It’s possible that I have talked myself into it after writing three recent posts about various celebrations of spring from around the world — Makar Sankrati from the Hindu tradition, Brigid from the pagan tradition, and Setsubun from the Shinto tradition — but I think not. Last week, a flock of robins swarmed my front yard for a late afternoon snack, following some internally-driven migratory path that is probably leading them northward. And during my early morning dog-walks, I can smell the earth’s fecundity wafting up from snow-covered mud, as the birds happily warble and chirp from their icy perches. On Feb. 2nd, our local groundhog declared six more weeks of winter, but beastly predictions cannot halt mother earth from her inexorable journey. Spring has sprung, and the birds are here to prove it.
Birds can be found the world over, which means they show up in nearly all of the world’s ancient texts. They have a miraculous ability to survive. Having evolved during the Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, they were one of the few species to survive the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. In fact, natural history museums love to make the point that birds are, in fact, living dinosaurs. All birds have wings. Beyond that, almost anything goes. Over 10,000 species exist in the world today, representing the earth’s incredible diversity. Maybe that’s why they are used as metaphors for so many different aspects of sacred life.
Two well-known Bible passages mentioning birds come to mind rather easily. The first passage is found in Genesis following the great flood (Genesis 8:6-12). When the rains finally ceased, Noah released a raven that apparently “went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.” It’s not clear what that means, exactly, because Noah then released a dove. That dove returned to the ark, signaling to Noah that the earth was still too drenched to find a roosting place. Seven days later, Noah released the dove again. This time, it returned with “a freshly plucked olive leaf.” The earth had survived. In another seven days, he released the dove one last time. It never returned. The dove could symbolize any number of things in this story, but at the very least, it seems to signify relief, liberation from the ark, and continued existence of both the land and some of its people.
The second Bible passage is the famous “do not worry” passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus seems to use the birds of this story as a reminder to trust in God and to avoid “sweating the small stuff.”
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:25-27)
In the Upanishads, a pair of birds represents our existential struggle between the path of the flesh and the path of the spirit. The physical world offers pleasure and pain; the divine offers detachment and a life free of sorrow and suffering. In that way, the message is actually similar to what Jesus points out in Matthew. The Upanishad metaphor shows up in several places, but here are a couple of versions.
Like two golden birds perched on the selfsame tree, intimate friends, the ego and the Self dwell in the same body. The former eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life while the latter looks on in detachment. (Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.1)
Two birds of beautiful plumage, comrades, inseparable, live on the selfsame tree. One bird eats from the fruit of pleasure and pain; the other look on without eating. (Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 4.6)
The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote many poems where birds make an appearance. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s called Birdwings.
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead, here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birdwings.
In the Qur’an, birds represent the magnificence of Allah. It is Allah who graciously bestows the capacity to fly, and the birds soar high above in praise of Allah.
Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky? Nothing holds them up but (the power of) Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe. (16:79, Ali trans.)
Do you not see that Allah is He Whom do glorify all those who are in the heavens and the earth, and the (very) birds with expanded wings? He knows the prayer of each one and its glorification, and Allah is Cognizant of what they do. (24:41, Shakir trans.)
Numerous children’s narratives from the Hindu/Buddhist tradition also contain avian characters. I’ll share just one story today called the Brave Little Parrot. It’s one of the Jataka tales – a collection of stories recounting the past lives of the Buddha. In the Brave Little Parrot, the forest is being consumed by fire. The little parrot, full of love and compassion for her forest friends, flies to the river, dipping her wings into the water. She then flies back to the forest, spraying the droplets, a few at a time, on the great blaze. When the gods realize the parrot is committed to saving her friends, despite her limited abilities, the great eagle god offers a flood of tears that douses the flames. Many versions of the story can be found in books or on the internet. There is even a video version of the story on You Tube. We use this story with our Sunday school kids during our Compassion unit to demonstrate that even the smallest of efforts can add to the world’s beauty.
Over the years, I have found that certain animals are associated with certain ancient texts. If you want stories about tigers, monkeys, and elephants, look to the literature of India and Asia. Stories about camels, lambs, and goats are found in the monotheistic, middle-eastern manuscripts. Cattle and fish can be found in both sets of texts. So can birds. Birds are ubiquitous, literally soaring across time and place. It has become cliché to remind parents to “stop and smell the flowers,” so I propose a new cliché: stop and listen to the birds. They connect us to nature, and as a result, to aspects of the divine. And somewhere in the world, at the very same moment, someone else is surely listening to the birds, too.
[The Bible Unbound is a regular column connecting Biblical themes, passages, and stories with ancient texts from other religions. It is representative of our Middle School Sunday school curriculum, and to a certain extent, our Upper Elementary Sunday school curriculum.]
Want to read more about birds in the Bible?
Other versions of the Brave Little Parrot
Brave Little Parrot (on-line text)
Brave Little Parrot (on-line video)
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Qur’an. Trans. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.searchtruth.com/>.
Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi: New Expanded Edition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2004. Print.
Easwaran, Eknath. The Upanishads. Trans. CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. Print.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.
Nagaraja, Dharmachari. Buddha at Bedtime: Tales of Love and Wisdom. London: Watkins Publishing, 2008. Print.
Shakir, Muhammad Habib. The Qur’an. Trans. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <http://www.searchtruth.com/>.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]