Our God the Mother Hen

Post by Kathleen Schwab

how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Luke 13:34 NIV)

Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.
— Julien of Norwich

In Luke 13, Jesus paints a very interesting picture of his feelings about himself and the people he has been trying to minister to. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” A mother with babies wants intensely to protect and shelter her family: rejection in that quarter is so painful.

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When I think about Jesus carrying these strong, protective instincts towards us, the instincts of a mother hen, I think of a story one of my students recently told me about one of her chickens. My student keeps a flock as a business, and uses the eggs for her family and also to sell. At one point, one of her chickens disappeared from the coop, and was gone long enough that my student thought this particular bird must be gone for good.

Then, after some time, the missing chicken reappeared. She marched out of the woods, leading a little row of chicks behind her. Turns out, she was tired of having her eggs taken away every day, she wanted a family, and so she left, laid her eggs and hatched them, then brought them back to the safety of home.

Leaving the flock was not a safe thing to do. My student lives in the Santa Cruz mountains, an area that is anything but ideal for a flightless bird. It is home to coyote packs, foxes, and even a small mountain lion population. Anyone who has spent time in these mountains knows that birds of prey are always on patrol: eagles, falcons, and hawks soar over head during the day, and owls rule the night.

I enjoyed the story as a wonderful tale of determination and chutzpah. You have to get a kick out of the hen taking off into the wild woods, then marching her little family back to coop. You can imagine her strutting in as if to say, “I’m back. Deal with it.”

Much later, I realized what a perfect picture of Jesus’ rescue mission to Earth the brave chicken’s adventure was. He was safe, honored, and had everything He could want or need in heaven. Yet He didn’t have us; for the church He had to go to the wilderness of Earth, and He had to do it in the fragile body of a human being. “He emptied Himself of all but love,” as Charles Wesley’s hymn says. In fact, things went much worse for Him than for the chicken, and He was caught and killed by the predators that patrol this world, always seeking someone to devour. For Him, bringing us back home to stay required dying the most painful of deaths, and so that is what He did.

Jesus sometimes gives us unusual pictures of Himself, images that stretch our ideas of how He operates in the world. In Luke 13, He referred to Himself as a mother hen, and ‘hen’ is hardly a complimentary term, maybe because our culture places little value on maternal nurturing. Hens are not seen as fonts of wisdom or sources of strength, nor are we encouraged to emulate them. As they age, they become even less worthy of respect: think about the associations of ‘old hen.’ We are not a culture of powerful grandmother figures, like the Native Americans: our female elders are seen as little old ladies who have to be helped across the street, sometimes by pre-adolescent boy scouts.

But Jesus called himself a mother hen, that often laughed at figure, maligned as fussy, flappy, and not too bright. And like that domestic chicken, who against expectations returned safe from the haunt of foxes and mountain lions, He comes home triumphant, leading His children behind Him.