Earthly mother’s love in Monza

by
21 December 2017

Pamela Tudor-Craig reflects on the love of Christ in this article, which she wrote shortly before she died

© De Agostini/Getty

Mother hen: the gilt silver hen with seven chicks, seventh century, said to have been a gift from Queen Theodelinda (d.628) to the Cathedral of Monza

Mother hen: the gilt silver hen with seven chicks, seventh century, said to have been a gift from Queen Theodelinda (d.628) to the Cathedral of Monza

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not?”

(Matthew 23.37)

 

SO CHRIST poured out the love of the Godhead for his creation, and so it was rejected. He could hardly have chosen a more apt analogy.

Keeping chickens is an instructive experience. If they had no cockerel with them, you will have missed half the glory of it: to watch a diminutive bantum male defending his harem from any overly interested cats and dogs, all many times his size, is instruction itself.

But the most endearing observation is that of the hen and her chicks. There is a tale of one of the nuns at Stanbrook. She was in charge of the hens. Alas they had no cock, so one day they bought in a clutch of new-born chicks. The following morning the nun was missing at Matins. They found her at last in the chicken-run, crouching down between the chicks and “pecking” with her pinched fingers at the seed around her.

Christ is unlikely to have heard this analogy from rabbinical scholars. It is likely to have been his own — as, indeed, with that of the birds of Matthew 10.29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So fear ye not therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows.”

There is, indeed, no account of care for little birds sold cheap until around 1500, when Leonardo da Vinci bought some to set them free.

Some years ago, I reconsidered joining the Roman Catholic Church. My historical interests, plus happy memories of a Catholic schooling, took me that way. As part of the journey of discernment, I was given some of the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council to read.

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Unfortunately, halfway through, I came across the sentence: “We know that dogs cannot have souls because they cannot love,” and I am afraid I closed the book. Not only do we do we hear of sheepdogs who lie down to die on their masters’ graves: we know of the capacity of animals to grieve. Her lady attendants could not find Mary, Queen of Scots’ little dog after she had been beheaded until they looked and found it under her skirts. Though cosseted and cared for, it refused to eat, and so it, too, finally died.

Indeed, all warm-blooded species have the ingrained capacity to show total self-giving love and care for their young, except perhaps the ostrich, which does not need to hatch her eggs, the heat of their natural climate being what it is. And many birds and beasts form loving relationships across species, and with humans among them, of course. But these analogies, drawn from nature, give us further insight into the person of Jesus and the nature of the divine, all reflecting God’s tenderness for his creation.

It reminds me, too, of one of the sermons heard so many years ago, preached by John Slater, who began by saying that “there are only two questions regularly asked of the clergy: ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ and ‘Will my cat go to heaven?’”. He began by addressing the second first: “only man was banished at the start from Eden. The animal kingdom never betrayed God’s trust, and so remained and remain. . .” And I spent the whole of the rest of the sermon reflecting on this introduction and missed the whole of the rest.

“I would have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.”

That cry is echoed in a remarkable work of art in the cathedral treasury of Monza, in northern Italy. Among its more predictable valuables is a rare, but still familiar, composition: a magnificent example of a goldsmith’s work, it comprises a flat dish with, above, a hen and her chicks pecking at the seed upon the circular dish on which they stand.

Why is it unique and not so? Because from my early childhood onwards, I remember a toy wooden version, with holes through the dish and a bell on a string beneath. By various tiltings of the dish, the jointed birds were persuaded to peck; and it was a very popular toy in my youth and for many years. Whether it had a long tradition behind it or not, I do not know; nor whether one could trace it all the way back to the seventh-century date of the Monza group.

There are though two nursery rhymes with such a pedigree: the always familiar Humpty-Dumpty, and the far more mysterious White Bird Featherless. This last can be traced to the ninth century, but was heard sung as recently as the last century in a nursery by Iona and Peter Opie when they were collecting for their classic book on nursery rhymes:

 

White bird featherless
Flew from Paradise,
Pitched on the castle wall.

Along came Lord Landless,
Took it up handless,
And rode away horseless to the King’s white hall.

 

A kind of ancient riddle, it refers to the taking up of a snow flake and the holding up of it in the light of a sunbeam.

So there we have it. The Monza hen and chicks from the seventh century with their wooden-toy 20th-century descendants; and the White Bird Featherless surviving orally from the ninth century to living memory. Both are essentially linked with childhood, and, therefore, with the ultimate simplicities of Christmas too: God’s love and God’s gentleness, God’s protectiveness and care, and, ultimately, God’s tenderness.

St Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, begins the great cycle of contemplations of the person of Jesus with a vision of the Trinity, together contemplating the world and the state of humanity. This is often seen in the light of Rublev’s great icon of the hospitality of Abraham (there was a rather wonderful contemporary re-conceiving of it displayed during October in Southwark Cathedral, as part of Black History Month. Written by Meg Wroe, it can be seen on the website megwroe.com).

I have always seen this as a kind of divine staff-meeting, out of which the idea of the incarnation is itself brought to birth. Confronted by humanity’s tendencies towards selfishness, delusion, destruction, and violence, God’s response is no longer a second flood and a second Ark; tenderness now replaces judgement. And so the Christ-child is born, God empties Godself and becomes one with us, entering our story quietly and gently.

Ignatius comments elsewhere that the activity of the Holy Spirit is to be likened to drops of water on a sponge rather than splashes of water hitting a stone — a gentle absorbing rather than violent arrival. So God enters human affairs, gently and tenderly; like the verses from an earlier text, “I sing of a Maiden”, this time likely to be from the 15th century:

 

He cam also stille
Ther his moder was
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the flowr.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dew in Aprylle,
That falleth on the spray.

(British Library Sloane 2593. Unique text c.1430)

 

The Christ-child: who comes so stille, coming so tenderly into our world, and coming again and again, in and through love, into and throughout our lives.

 

Dr Tudor-Craig (Pamela, Lady Wedgwood) died on 5 December, aged 89. Obituary to follow

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