The Shadow of His Wings
In today’s Gospel, Jesus laments over the city of Jerusalem, with words that are striking for their maternal imagery. The love he describes is what we experience beneath the cross.
Readings: Ephesians 6:10-20, Luke 13:31-35
The following homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. You can listen here or read below:
There is a beautiful Raphael painting that I have been using as a bookmark recently. It hangs in the National Gallery, and is called the ‘Ansidei Madonna‘. The Virgin is enthroned at the centre, flanked by Saint Nicholas on the right and Saint John the Baptist on the left. On her lap is sat the Christ child, and Mary is reading to him, pointing out words and images on an illuminated page.
It is a scene – and the central section which is on my bookmark in particular – of maternal love, of the intimacy between a mother and her child. And that is why it drew my attention in relation to this Gospel, because it is a story that is so striking for its maternal imagery. We are very used to hearing paternal imagery for God’s love, and Jesus addresses God as ‘Father’. But here Jesus’ love, God’s love, is described using the image of a mother.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
St Luke’s Gospel is well known for its portrayal of Jesus’ infancy. Perhaps the love and intimacy between Jesus and his own mother is what stands behind the choice of simile in this lament over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus addresses the city directly, and groans over its repeated refusal of his love. It is the city that killed the prophets and stoned those sent to it. This is the story of salvation history, of the centuries when the prophets preached the Kingdom of God to Israel, and for centuries it has resisted.
Jesus’ lament is for a love offered, but the offer rejected. It is a lament that a few chapters later in Luke will be repeated, this time with tears: “as he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.” (Luke 19:41)
But what prompts this lament here? Why is this sadness expressed at this moment?
The actions of the Pharisees at the start of the Gospel are surprising. Those we are accustomed to see as antagonists approach with words of help: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” But, whatever might be the Pharisees’ motives, Jesus knows these are not words of help. His path is already set for Jerusalem. He cannot be diverted, for it is in Jerusalem that he will finish his work. The note of necessity is strong: “I must go on my way…”, “…for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”
And this must be what prompts his lament. Jesus’ cry from the heart is provoked by the very suggestion that his saving work should be thwarted. Nothing can stand in the way of what he is to accomplish in Jerusalem. Nothing can stand in the way of his love.
The maternal imagery Jesus chooses to convey this utterly uncompromising love has its roots in the Old Testament. We sing every Sunday at Compline from Psalm 91 “he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.” In Psalm 17 the psalmist cries out to God: “hide me in the shadow of thy wings“. Jesus speaks of a love that is God’s very own, his desire to gather his children under his wings.
There is another Raphael painting in the National Gallery that is a favourite of mine, the Mond Crucifixion. Christ’s body hands from the cross in the centre of the scene, and beneath either arm hovers an angel catching the blood that flows from his wounds. Below them is a small crowd, St Jerome and Mary Magdalene, and the Blessed Virgin and St John. At the top of the painting the sun is visible. All those who stand below the cross, gathered beneath Jesus’ outstretched arms, are sheltered beneath the shadow of his wings.
The love of that pours forth from the cross, the love of Christ, it not some abstract and remote concept. It is a love that protects and nurtures, a love that shelters and defends. It is a love that cannot be thwarted. Like a child on his mother’s lap, like the brood gathered under the wings of the hen, beneath the cross is where we truly know what it means to be loved. When we place ourselves there, there we can look up and see Jesus, lifted up from the earth, he who draws all people to himself.