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The Man and The Birds: The First Sunday after Christmas

Sunday, December 30, 2018:
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

For years I’ve had a vague recollection of a modern-day Christmas parable I heard at church as a kid — either in a sermon, or in the children’s story, or in Sunday school. The other day I remembered that the internet exists, and so it took just a few seconds to find out that the story I was thinking of is from Paul. Not Saint Paul, but Paul Harvey; the guy who would give biographical sketches of famous people — usually including surprising details — and always ended with “and now you know… the rest of the story.”

So whether he created or simply passed it along, here’s his Christmas story of the man and the birds:

Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge, he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man. “I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. That he’d much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window. But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.

Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.

And then, he realized, that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me. That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Because any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him. “If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safe, warm . . . to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand.”

At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells –“Adeste Fideles” [O Come All Ye Faithful] — listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.

Maybe this is a story that works for you. It’s a story that has stuck with me for probably almost thirty years. A story that’s appropriate to recall during these twelve days of the Christmas season, where we celebrate not just Jesus’s birth, but the Incarnation: this powerful and a little unusual idea that the Creator dared to become a part of creation.

But the story of The Man and the Birds is also limited. Like all symbols, stories and metaphors, and analogies or allegories, it captures something of the truth, but the truth is so big that it can only shine a light on part of the reality. (And I think “faith” is what we call our openness to the rest of the truth, that is perhaps always a little bit beyond the scope of our flashlights.)

If I were Paul Harvey, I’d tried to convey something about the amazing sacrifice made by the man in opening himself up to the dangers and limitations of being a bird (I say this as a cat owner). I’d try to convey something about how birdhood is forever changed after the man becomes a bird. And likewise, personhood is changed after he, presumably (at least in my story) after he becomes a person again — but now has a more intimate understanding of what it’s like to be a bird. (My version would, apparently, be a science fiction story, involving a machine that actually brings about the man’s transformation into a bird, and then back again.)

The symbols, stories and metaphors, and analogies and all analogies and allegories of the Church we call our scriptures and our creeds. And that doesn’t mean that they’re not true; but I think it means that they point us to a deeper truth that is impossible to communicate fully. And so the best we can do is to open ourselves to art, beauty, poetry, and storytelling to shine a light on that deeper reality.

In the mid-5th century at a great council of the Church, they spoke of Jesus as the incarnate Word of God: “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man… of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.”

Words that they felt were helpful in at least establishing boundaries for how we talk about the Christmas miracle. It’s the miracle that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote about, and that we heard late on Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

And similarly at all of our Christmas services we heard the words of the author of the Fourth Gospel, grasping at this amazing happening: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

A grace and a truth that is reflected in Jesus’s words today: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

As we continue in this Christmastime we acknowledge an amazing occurrence coming out of God’s love for creation, like the man in the story whose heart is affected by seeing the suffering of the birds in the winter storm. A story about a God who enters the old creation and makes it new. And as one author describes it: “[a] sacramental God, for he speaks to us through the material, and in so doing, sanctifies it. He speaks to us in the body of a child and thus makes holy our human nature.”** Amen.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* I have taken the text of the Paul Harvey story from

** Michael Perham, Glory in Our Midst (London: SPCK, 2005), 48.