Posted June 16, 2011 in New Millennium:
The Birds of the Air

by Fr. David May.

Look at the birds of the air (Matt 6:26). Unfortunately, these words of Our Lord do not get the attention they deserve.

Birdwatchers (or "birders" as they are more commonly called these days) need no command from the Son of God to devote themselves to their avian interests. But those who aren’t that interested in birds pass over this verse for some other saying of the Lord that seems more personally relevant.

Either way, an important lesson the Lord is teaching gets short shrift.

This verse is in the section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with learning to not be anxious about one’s life—what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.

The Lord is teaching us that to focus on these things is a typical pagan preoccupation, but is contrary to life in his kingdom. The one is rife with anxiety and worry about making oneself secure; the other is filled with trust, peace, and a kind of lightheartedness—light as the birds of the air.

I personally am no birder, but I do habitually look out for and listen to birds as I walk from here to there around Combermere or wherever I happen to be.

We get a big change in feathered clientele around here, what with all the seasonal migrating that goes on in a climate like this one. May and June are prime months for everybody being back for the summer, singing away all at once, nesting, mating, producing fledglings.

There is a veritable noise of song outside my window that begins with the first light and continues until dark, with the odd nocturnal noisemaker making a contribution even later.

However, Our Lord pointed out birds for a simple theological reason: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Mt 6:26).

If you’ve ever noticed birds—any kind will do—you will notice that they are not capable, for the most part, of any agricultural enterprise. They don’t run farms or invent seed-manufacturing machines.

Instead, they gather. They peck up what falls within their range; they are dependent on what they can find. They do all this with tremendous alertness, speed, and energy. Life or death depends on that vigilance.

But the point is: their heavenly Father feeds them. It’s all there, waiting to be discovered, received, noticed, consumed.

Our Lord is implying that so much of what we need—or is it all that we need?—is offered to us moment by moment, coming from the hand of his Father.

But if we live in the kingdom of self-service, otherwise known as the Republic of Worry and Anxiety, we will likely not even notice the many ways the Lord is faithfully taking care of us.

For example, have you ever searched frantically high and low for missing car keys or a passport or a wallet—only to discover after you prayed a minute and calmed down some, that said item was in your coat pocket all along?

Have you ever panicked wondering where you put your eyeglasses—only to discover them propped quietly on top of your head?

Or, on a more serious note, have you ever wondered where you’d find enough food or clothing or money to care for your family, only to have it provided for you by the kindness of others inspired by their love of God? Humbly, like birds, we are invited to receive what has been offered us by a merciful, loving hand.

Birds, it will be noted, soar into the air, some more gracefully than others. The point is: they at some point or the other turn heavenward. If you translate the text literally, they are not "birds of the air," but "birds of heaven."

By nature they have a heavenly orientation, as if pointing out for us the direction our spirit should frequently take.

How often do we find ourselves downcast, earthbound, totally preoccupied with, as the Byzantine liturgy puts it, "every earthly care."

The Byzantine liturgy invites us at one point to "lay aside" these concerns and turn our inward gaze heavenward to sing the thrice-holy hymn.

It is when we, in one sense, let go of earth that we become most firmly founded on the Rock who is Christ. Even on a simply natural level, we often are better able to solve a problem after we let go of it for a time.

On a supernatural plane, our hearts yearn to soar heavenward into the arms of our heavenly Father, where every care is truly laid aside and we can simply rest in the assurance of that strong, almighty love.

Birds also sing, and as I mentioned earlier, they don’t take turns. They belt out a species-specific tune according to nature’s demands. In the spring this can mean hundreds of different kinds of birds all going at it at once.

Some are real operatic masters; others sing as plainly as the American woodcock, which at night repeats at regular intervals its one dull nasal-like note: eeent!

No matter. Each pours out its own song, giving glory to God after a fashion and delighting the ears and hearts of human beings. What a lesson to be learned here in the free and simple pouring forth of who one is, one’s own "song," without conscious thought of how one might sound compared to another.

To the discerning human ear, the song of the purple finch cascades from the tree tops like liquid music, while the lowly woodcock grunts in the underbrush. But one has the sense that each one is equally "proud" of its musical achievement, that each is content to be who he is before the face of the Creator.

If you look long enough, of course, you will see birds fallen to the ground, injured or dead. You will behold a cat catching a chickadee and slinking off to enjoy the repast. You may see ducks or pelicans caught in oil slicks.

When you see an innocent creature like a bird suffer, you may well be reminded of the innocent children and little ones around the world who bear worse misery yet. Bird-watching isn’t always that inspirational or pleasant to behold.

Perhaps that is why in this same section of the Gospel, the Lord urges us to "seek first" the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

What is that kingdom? What is that righteousness? These questions might best be answered by being phrased differently. Who is that kingdom? Who is that righteousness? The answer to both questions is the same: it is Jesus himself.

We are to seek first his words, his deeds, his wisdom, his teachings, his presence, his face. Jesus himself is to be at the center of all our striving both as to what we think about and what we live by.

Only those who keep their eyes on their Savior in this way come to receive that greatest of gifts: the eternal Son’s trust in and love for the Father. Jesus alone can impart to us the confidence that transcends every failure, every falling to earth, every defacing, every dying.

From him alone we receive the assurance that the Father will not fail us but that he will save the lost and lowly and raise them up to glory by the resurrection of his Son.

This is the peaceful atmosphere that suffuses these verses of Matthew 6: it is Christ’s own deep trust in the fidelity, power, tender care, and love of his heavenly Father. There is a joy in all this as pure as the song of a bird in spring.

Let us ponder this the next time we step outdoors on a bright day in spring.


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