‘See that cute wee bird’, one of the gentlemen of the Trust said, gesturing in my direction. I preened a little, sitting straighter in the chair. ‘It’s the most vicious, territorial, aggressive thing you’ll ever come across’. A bit harsh, I thought, considering I’m always on my best behaviour at meetings. When I objected to the accusation, though, he claimed to be talking about the robin redbreast pattern on my dress.
It seems (according to the bloke in question who evidently relished labouring his deliberately ambiguous point) that the very attractive little birds for whom we all feel such affection are feathery sociopaths, possessive and territorial in the extreme. At this time of year, their image is everywhere: on mugs, Christmas cards, cushions . . . and even clothing. Hanging on a hook in my porch is a little wooden heart, which bears the legend, ‘robins appear when lost loved ones are near’. This is part of the comforting folklore that lets people believe that stray feathers, friendly robins and even butterflies are a message to them from someone who has died.
Our association between the robin and Christmas may simply be because he is a colourful fellow who appears to good effect against a wintry landscape. However, I prefer to believe that it’s because of the folklore which connects the little bird to Christ.
In one story, Mary has kindled a fire in the stable in Bethlehem, to keep the baby warm. She is distracted by a visitor, and does not notice that she has placed the manger too close to the blaze. A little brown bird comes and fluffs out his wings, shielding the baby’s face from the heat of the flames, scorching his own breast in the process.
In light of this fable, then, the robin is a very apt symbol of Christmas. More importantly, though, he is a good metaphor for Christ’s own love – the love that goes out to others and sets self at naught. The bird who shielded the baby suffered for it, but what a worthy recipient for his act of selflessness! Which Christian would not want to have done as much?
It’s difficult to make the time to reflect upon Christ at this time of year. We have so thoroughly removed him from the festival that bears his name, and filled that void with things that have nothing to do with him – eating and drinking, partying and spending – and that are transient pleasures at best. But then, just as the robin is a suitable metaphor for Christ, the modern ‘celebration’ of Christmas is a vivid reflection of what a life lived purely for oneself looks like.
I am particularly blessed to belong in a congregation that marks the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday in December – the one usually recognised in other traditions as Advent Sunday. There is always something in the communion that I can take away and meditate upon, and that has helped me to think more about the sort of Saviour upon whom I depend. Lately, I have not been able to forget the minister’s words regarding Christ’s thanksgiving on the night he was betrayed; even in that proximity to death, he was looking upwards, his eye upon pleasing the Father.
Since communion Sunday, I have been thinking about what followed on from that prayer. Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, alone and fully aware of what lay ahead. Our humanity gives in to fear because we allow it. Jesus subdued his by being obedient and keeping his eye on God. Indeed, we witness him throwing himself completely upon God’s mercy, and subjecting himself to God’s will in the fervent prayer that he utters.
In his place, not only would I have begged the cup to pass from me, but I would have dashed it away myself.
And there’s the difference between the likes of me, and the unparalleled Christ. He suffered to the limit of that tension every Christian knows in some respect: to want to obey God, but to be terrified of what obedience to him may mean for us personally. The inconvenient truth is that he is likely to send us places we don’t wish to go, or to suffer partings for which we are unprepared. Almost every time I have sought his will in making a decision, it has cost me something to obey. On the other hand, however, it has earned me much greater peace than doing exactly what I want ever could.
Jesus knew that being obedient would result in his death – and he also knew that it was necessary that he drink the bitter cup to the very last drop: not, crucially, to save himself, but to save us. In reflecting on this, it’s hard not to feel how far short I fall of the ultimate pattern of obedience, and of making my will subject to that of God.
In another tale, the robin was said to have landed on the head of our crucified Saviour, and plucked out of his brow a thorn from the crown that had been placed there in cruel mockery of his kingship. The little bird’s breast was stained red by the blood of the last, perfect sacrifice.
I am like that particular robin. All I had to do was alight upon Jesus and be sprinkled with his blood. The amount he has asked me to suffer, in proportion to his own agonies, is less than that one thorn – and even when I am injured, it is his blood the enemy draws, not mine.
What better time than Christmas to fix our hearts upon these truths? And how apt to remember, every time we see the robin, how Christ went against his human will so that we could accept his gift of life.