Saturday, December 7, 2019

"The Birds of Bethlehem" and Perspectives of Advent

Tomie dePaola has written many Christmas picture books, everything from Strega Nona’s Gift and Country Angel Christmas to The Legend of the Poinsettia and Baby’s First Christmas. In 2012 he penned The Birds of Bethlehem, dedicated to the Sisters of Veronique and the Community of Redwoods Monastery. In the book, six pairs of birds recount their observations in Bethlehem.

Now there are a lot of Nativity books with animals as the central players. Within children’s picture book industry, it is a favorite way of storytelling. However, with The Birds of Bethlehem, dePaola does something a little different. The birds are not participants in the story. They are simply observers. They tell the story as they see it.

Each Advent, don’t we do the same thing? We aren’t there in Bethlehem, yet we observe the Christmas story as it unfolds in the Gospels and re-tell the story according to what we see.

Perspective is everything. For refugee fleeing their homeland, the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus offers hope that their Savior had such an uncertain earthly beginning. For new parents, the birth of Christ resonates with the beautiful mix of love and exhaustion they feel towards their small child. For those who feel the purposelessness of a dead-end job, the shepherds’ role provides encouragement and hope. I could go on. We each see something different when we look closely at the story of Christ’s birth.

The birds in this story notice the throngs of people entering Bethlehem, the town full of strangers, the young couple looking for a place to stay, the shepherds watching their sheep, the angel appearing gloriously in the sky, the shepherds visiting the newborn child. But at the very beginning of the book, the narrator says,
Every morning the birds of Bethlehem gathered in the field to glean any corn that might be left from the harvest.
Reading this, my mind went immediately to two things. First, are the verses in Matthew where Jesus says,
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
Next, I thought of the book of Ruth. After all, the birds are in Bethlehem, where Naomi led her daughter-in-law Ruth after leaving their former life in Moab. The Lord provided for Ruth in the same way. She went to go glean in the fields, gathering the sheaves of grain left over at the end of the harvest. And in humbling herself, God used unlikely circumstances to open up the lineage from where Jesus would come.

Perspective matters. When Israel was awaiting the Messiah, the ancient stories from the Old Testament were ever on their lips, the prophecies on the forefront of their minds. It wouldn’t take long to make the connections. Bethlehem? We know a story about Bethlehem. And that shaped the way they would think about God’s unfolding promises.

When we experience the ups and downs of life, we are constantly making memories that will later come to mind. Even the painful thoughts, over time, will be layered by remembrances of God’s ever-weaving faithfulness.

And so when the birds in Bethlehem are recorded as gleaning for corn among the harvest fields, we picture a young woman, ready and waiting for the Lord to move. Mirrored in Mary’s own willingness to follow God’s unlikely plan.

Don’t disregard the simple picture books. Sometimes they have the most to offer our Advent-filled minds.

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