Bird is the Word

In his commentary on Psalm 102, Augustine writes:

I have become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl among ruined walls. Behold three birds and three places: the pelican, the owl, and the sparrow; and the three places are severally, the wilderness, the ruined walls, and the house-top. The pelican in the wilderness, the owl in the ruined walls, and the sparrow in the house-top. In the first place we must explain, what the pelican signifies: since it is born in a region which makes it unknown to us. It is born in lonely spots, especially those of the river Nile in Egypt. Whatever kind of bird it is, let us consider what the Psalm intended to say of it. It dwells, it says, in the wilderness. Why enquire of its form, its limbs, its voice, its habits? As far as the Psalm tells you, it is a bird that dwells in solitude. The owl is a bird that loves night. Parietinæ, or ruins, as we call them, are walls standing without roof, without inhabitants, these are the habitation of the owl. And then as to the house-top and the sparrows, you are familiar with them. I find, therefore, some one of Christ’s body, a preacher of the word, sympathizing with the weak, seeking the gains of Christ, mindful of his Lord to come. 

Let us see these three things from the office of His steward. Hath such a man come among those who are not Christians? He is a pelican in the wilderness. Hath he come among those who were Christians, and have relapsed? He is an owl in the ruined walls; for he forsakes not even the darkness of those who dwell in night, he wishes to gain even these. Hath he come among such as are Christians dwelling in a house, not as if they believed not, or as if they had let go what they had believed, but walking lukewarmly in what they believe? The sparrow cries unto them, not in the wilderness, because they are Christians; nor in the ruined walls, because they have not relapsed; but because they are within the roof; under the roof rather, because they are under the flesh. The sparrow above the flesh cries out, hushes not up the commandments of God, nor becomes carnal, so that he be subject to the roof. What ye hear in the ear, that preach ye on the housetops. There are three birds and three places; and one man may represent the three birds, and three men may represent severally the three birds; and the three sorts of places, are three classes of men: yet the wilderness, the ruined walls, and the house-top, are but three classes of men.

Augustine here speaks of the Steward: in this case, God’s servant who carries the gospel into all such situations, whether isolation, ruin, or comfort. If you have become like a pelican, Christ goes to the barren places where isolation is found and there is no help near. Christ comes to those like the barn owl, who make their home in those walls ruined and in disrepair. Like the sparrow, Christ calls out constantly to us; never ceasing, always calling that we should hear Him. This he does through his Stewards which bring the Word.

Moreover, Christ himself becomes as we are to redeem us from that which we have become. Christ is to us a pelican, redeeming us by his own blood. Augustine continues: Let us not pass over what is said, or even read, of this bird, that is, the pelican; not rashly asserting anything, but yet not passing over what has been left to be read and uttered by those who have written it. Do ye so hear, that if it be true, it may agree; if false, it may not hold. These birds are said to slay their young with blows of their beaks, and for three days to mourn them when slain by themselves in the nest: after which they say the mother wounds herself deeply, and pours forth her blood over her young, bathed in which they recover life. This may be true, it may be false: yet if it be true, see how it agrees with Him, who gave us life by His blood. 

Today we may find ourselves in the wilderness, having strayed from the celestial city where security may be found. Christ is there a pelican to us.

If we find ourselves in disrepair, Christ comes to make his home among us.

Wherever we are, Christ ever calls to us just as the sparrow sings his song without end.

It may be that like the pelican, the Lord must slay us for a season. This often comes in the form of discipline, though it is not outside of God’s character to even painfully discipline those who are far off. Yet also, he then by his own blood brings healing and redemption. He, who gave us life by His blood, is not a seasonal bird. He is always ready to come to us as we are, and redeem us according to our need.

My attention was drawn to this passage by this tweet. You can read the full sermon here.

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