Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
- Matthew 10:29-31 -
Chirping. Very soon, my house will be filled with the sound of chirping. As the birds return north, the stack of black bricks that rises from the side of my house will once again become home to some family of chimney swifts, birds dark and oddly shaped enough to resemble bats when they soar overhead. They'll cluster together on the little ledge inside my chimney and chirp to their hearts' content. Then the chirping will increase tenfold as the new babies hatch. This is an annual occurence in my rural Louisiana home, and while it has its annoyances, it's come to bring a comforting familiarity with it. They make their home in the chimney and we below hear their music.
Last August, the chirping changed to frenzied squawking as one of the chimney swift babies fell from his perch and landed, softly, on the ashen heap of our hearth. As he righted himself, unable to fly, he clawed his way up the fireplace screen, squawking and screeching for parents who were, apparently, away from the nest. My children were shaken. My oldest son, who has a love of animals so intense that he was angry at me for days when I killed the water moccasin that found its way into our dirty laundry pile (yes, dear reader, take a moment to shudder with terror), was especially concerned. Aware that the animal world does not take kindly to human scent on their young - and that little talons can be very sharp - I put on my thickest gloves and gently pulled the baby bird from the heap. My children stared in wonder and awe at that little black thing as he found a new perch on my finger. No longer squawking, the chimney swift appeared to feel safe and comfortable in this new situation, and began climbing around on my hand.
After taking a few moments to explain to my homeschooled children the evolution of raptors into birds - and my, how that resemblance is evident in baby birds! - I realized that I was uncertain what to do next. Thinking that the bird may not be accepted again by its parents, I placed him on a branch of our magnolia tree and resigned him to his fate. "Maybe he does know how to fly after all and it was just the shock that grounded him. He'll find his way back home. Maybe." Then I called my wife, a country girl who was raised in our house and was once even pre-vet, and of course, the first thing she told me to do was to get the bird out of the tree. "A barn cat is going to climb that branch and eat him! Put him back in the chimney. His parents will take care of him." Okay, I suppose my wife has more common sense than I do. On went the gloves again and I carefully returned the poor bird to the perch in the chimney. We never had any trouble again from those birds and I assume he was fine.
Writing in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas gave us the hymn O Salutaris Hostia, commonly used on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
O saving Victim, opening wide,
The gate of Heaven to us below,
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply, thy strength bestow!
To thy great name be endless praise,
Immortal Godhead, One in Three.
O grant us endless length of days
In our true native land with thee.
This hymn summarizes well for us the relationship between us poor sinners and our merciful Savior. Asking Him to stoop to our level, to send his grace and strength to restore us once again to "our true native land," we praise His name forever and ask to be with him forever. It's a beautiful and simple hymn, and an excellent one to sing when you feel far from God, as that bird must have felt far from his nest.
Humanity is a lot like that baby chimney swift, yet we are worth so very much more than birds. Like that baby bird, we fell from a lofty home. Like him, we landed in filth, the filth of our own sins. As the bird was covered in ash, we were covered in the death that returns us to ashes. As the bird clawed its way hopelessly up the fireplace screen, unable to return to its original place, so we strive furiously to remake Eden in our own lives, building kingdoms that will never last and treasures that will never satisfy. Like that bird, we needed a Savior.
As my children and I looked upon the baby bird with pity, seeing his beauty and feeling sorry for his state, so our Savior came to us with love, seeing in us His own image and sorrowful at our distress. As I put on a glove to better relate to the bird, so the eternal Son of God took on our nature to relate to us, to save us, to be a model for us. The chimney swift would have died if left alone, furiously raging to return to his home, and by my own foolishness, could have been gobbled up by a cat. Left to our own devices, we too will die in our sins, and we can be certain also that the devil is on the prowl for us, eager to gobble up our souls. As knowledge and prudence corrected me and guided me to place the bird gently back on his original perch, so our Savior was guided by Wisdom in His mission to lead us to heaven.
As Lent continues, may we come ever more to recognize our current condition, covered in ash and soot, a far fall from our homeland, but full of trust, hope, and courage because we have a loving Savior who has taken our nature, come down to be among us, freed us from death and the threat of the devil, and offers us a perch high in the heavens, "in our true native land" with Him.