THE SONG BIRD
I once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, according to the custom of Christians across the ages. We saw many wonderful sights, straight from the pages of the Bible. We visited the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and many other places. I had so many wonderful experiences, that it would be difficult to describe them all to you.
Perhaps my most notable experience was strolling through the streets of the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem. Given my stature, and girth, I was soon surrounded by young Palestinian children, running on ahead of me, shouting as they ran, American Goliath! American Goliath! Or maybe it was standing atop of Herod’s Dead Sea fortress at Masada, not noticing the glares and stares directed at me by machine gun-toting Israeli soldiers. I had inadvertently worn a blue and white-checkered headdress, which I had purchased from a street vendor. I did not realize, until told so by my Palestinian tour guide, that wearing the colors of an Arab in this national shrine of Israel, was considered an offense. This place is after all, a symbol of Israel’s survival and resistance to aggression. Never again, they swear, will Masada fall. Despite my cultural ignorance and ineptitude, the Lord protected me, a humble pilgrim on my journey. I met so many people, experienced many adventures, saw many sights worth seeing. We shared many wonderful moments with friends and family, which I will not recount for you here.
No, I will not bore you with a travelogue of my journey. I will let you make your own journeys. I would like, however, to tell you of an incredible event that I experienced there in that land. I would like to tell you of the time that I felt the Lord’s touch, first in a garden, and later again on a mountain.
Of all the holy sites that we were shown, all of the gilded shrines and altars, all of the dimly lit, incense laden churches, containing the bones of dead saints… of all of these places, the only place where I truly felt the presence of God, was at a place called The Garden Tomb. Gordon’s Calvary, as it is also known, is named for a British General, Charles Gordon, who made a great contribution to the world, through his campaigns in China, and in Sudan. He freed many from tyranny and slavery during his service to the British crown. He finally gave his life in that service, and for that cause. How appropriate it is, in my mind, that this place was “discovered” by him, and bears his name.
Great controversy surrounds the sites, purported to be the places where events in the life of Jesus occurred. None is more controversial than the much-disputed location of his crucifixion and burial. Some say that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the one true holy site. Some say that it occurred on the Mount of Olives, others say it is here, at Gordon’s Calvary. It is not important to me, whether or not this is the place where they laid Jesus after his death; after all, he only stayed for three days. No, this place is important to me for a different reason. It is the place where I felt God’s touch.
We arrived there on a tour bus, as do thousands of pilgrims every year. We were escorted into the garden, and shown the tomb hewn from the rock. We viewed the promontory rock face on the hillside, eerily shaped like the face of a skull, and we remembered the Gospels description of Golgotha, “the place of the skull”.
The grounds of this place are beautifully maintained. It is a peaceful oasis, amidst the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, lying just Northwest of the Damascus Gate. Arrangements had been made for our tour group to hold a private communion service, so we were escorted to a secluded area of the garden grounds.
As I sat and listened to scriptures being read, and the prayers of the elders, I reflected upon the beauty of this place. Suddenly, the world around me dimmed, as I heard the song of a single bird, joyously trilling his beautiful melody towards heaven. I can’t explain to you why this seemingly inconsequential event struck me with such force. I can only describe to you its effect on me. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen, and goose bumps rising on my skin. My heart fluttered, and thumped in my chest. I knew, as surely as if I had been struck by lightning, that God was there with me. It was as if he had spoken my name aloud. I glanced around at the others. No one else had noticed. No one else had heard it. I was alone in the moment.
Now I am not a seeker of signs. I seek my God through prayer, and his counsel from his Word. Neither am I a person who believes much in the supernatural. I consider myself to be a fairly level headed, rational person. But I will tell you this. I felt God with me there in that garden. He made his presence known to me there. He spoke to me, with the song of that little bird.
I know what you are thinking. That’s sounds pretty fuzzy doesn’t it, maybe even a little nutty? Certainly, it would be difficult to prove such an event with hard, empirical evidence in a court of law.
“Mr. Smith, could you describe for the court, how you were able to identify this presence that you felt? How can you be so sure that it was God? Isn’t it possible, Mr. Smith, that what you actually experienced was a random series of events, which you construed to be of a spiritual nature, given your heightened emotional state? Isn’t it much more likely that it was a mere coincidence that caused that bird to begin singing at that moment? In fact, Mr. Smith isn’t it possible that it wasn’t really a bird singing at all? Isn’t it possible that you were listening to a soundtrack, which was being broadcast through hidden speakers, to enhance the spiritual mood at this so called, Garden Tomb attraction, which you were attending?”
It would be very difficult to prove indeed, but the story doesn’t end there.
We bid farewell to Israel and traveled to Europe, where our journey eventually culminated, high in the Bavarian Alps, at a village named Oberammergau. We were there to attend their world famous passion play. This play has occurred every ten years, with very few interruptions, since the 14th century.
During the terrible Black Plague, which swept through Europe killing many millions of people, the townsfolk of this village called an urgent meeting. At this meeting they prayed to God to save them. They prayed that if he would spare their tiny village of this dread malady, they would commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of his son, with a passion play. According to the legend, not a single man, woman, or child from the village was lost to the plague. It was truly a Passover for the people of Oberammergau. The people of this village were spared by God, and in grateful obedience, they kept their promise. So began the tradition of the Passion Play of Oberammergau. The play is produced once, every ten years. It is produced completely, and exclusively by the residents of this village. It is a great honor to be selected for the cast of this production, and cast members spend years in preparation for their portrayal of their character.
An impressive theater has been constructed for this enterprise, surrounded by the natural wonder and beauty of the mountains. The amphitheater is covered by a roof, except for the stage, which is in the open air.
The play portrays the life of Christ, through several acts, each ending in a vignette, a living portrait. Each vignette creates a living picture, as if painted by a great master, depicting some Bible scene.
Dialogue for the passion play is in German, but is easily followed by reading from a printed version, in English, French, or Italian. This is truly an international event.
The day of the play arrived, bleak, damp, and gray. Clouds shrouded the mountains surrounding this nestled village. I considered staying in my room. I was suffering greatly from traveler’s misery. The cuisine from our last tour stop in Greece had done me in. It was probably the mousaka, or maybe it was the ouzo. Anyway, I wasn’t feeling very much like sitting through a six-hour play. My mother insisted that I go, and she pulled from her magic bag, a small bottle of pills. She told me to take one, and my trotting would cease. I looked at the tiny yellow pill in the palm of my hand. I thought to myself, “I’m a pretty big guy. I’d better take two.” Well, let me tell you, I didn’t need to worry about that function for a while. In fact, I didn’t need to worry about indoor plumbing for the rest of the trip!
The play was all that it was suppose to be, and more. It was truly a captivating experience. Even though it was many hours long, I found myself lost in time, as I was drawn into the story that was portrayed, so dramatically, with such pageantry, and surrounded by a setting of such natural beauty.
Finally, the scene of the crucifixion was portrayed. Jesus, hanging upon the cross, issued his cry of anguish, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There was not a sound to be heard in the amphitheater. At that moment, a shaft of pale sunlight broke through the clouds, and was cast upon the stage. That’s when I heard it. That same songbird that I had heard at the Garden Tomb, I heard it again! It was the same song. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck becoming stiff, and the goose bumps on my arms rising, just like in the garden. I had felt his touch again, just like in the garden. How could I hear the same bird now, thousands of miles away?
Now I don’t know much about birds. I am not familiar with the migration patterns of songbirds. Could a certain songbird migrate from the deserts of Israel to the Bavarian Alps in a matter of days? I suppose it’s possible, but not likely. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I don’t think so. No, I believe that God wanted me to know that he was there with me. I like to think that he was honoring my journey, my pilgrimage, by reaching out to me, and caressing me. Only God knows why he reached out to me. Only God knows why he sent this little bird on an errand, first to a desert garden, and then into a mountain valley to carry a message to me, gently whispering, through the song of this little bird. I don’t know why, but I thank him for it.
I don’t know why he sent his only son into the world on his errand of tender mercy. But he did. Neither do I know why he loves me, especially me. But he does, I know that he does. I will accept his will in this matter, and in all other matters.
I believe that God is with us always, but hidden from us. Sometimes, I think he slips down, close by, and whispers to us, very softly, like a father would steal a precious moment with his sleeping child, brushing a wisp of hair away from the face, lightly caressing the cheek, before slipping silently away in the darkness, leaving behind only his fragrance. I believe that my Father caressed my cheek that day in the garden, and on the mountain.
I believe that God sends us messages, according to his will, and in his own way. Don’t be surprised if God caresses your cheek with his gentle touch some day. Listen for him, watch for him. His touch is gentle, his fragrance sweet. I will also listen for his call, and wait for his touch, but whether in the garden, or on the mountain, I will never hear a songbird in the same way.
I later learned from my mother, that she also heard the songbird in the garden, and on the mountain. She recognized the significance of this event, and concluded as I have, that it was a gift from God, for a mother and her child.
So I dedicate this story to my mother, who heard the songbird, and who taught me how to listen, not just with my ears, but also with my heart.
M. J. Smith
March 14, 2005
I sat alone in a garden,
On a misty morning of glistening dew.
Not a breath of wind stirred,
Not a voice was heard,
The world was silent, subdued.
Suddenly the stillness was broken,
By a joyful, melodious song!
A songbird was singing his greeting,
To the world, and the sky, and the dawn.
A question I bore, along with my wonder.
To whom does the songbird sing?
If my hearing, per chance did not hear him,
To whose ear would this joy, he bring?
If he were to sing, with no one near him,
Then whom would this song be for?
Who listens to this minstrel,
As he beckons to the empty wood?
Is this needless beauty wasted?
Or is there some purpose, some good,
Which drives this feathered messenger,
To deliver his greeting each morn.
What master does he serve?
As his clarion call is born.
He is heedless of the acts of men.
Proclaiming his message above the din.
Only for the moment halting his song,
Persistent, continuing after the throng,
Has died, and all again is silent.
Then begins his solo anew.
To whom is this glory directed?
If not to God, then who?
It is God for whom the bird sings.
No audience of man required.
But he shares this wonder with us,
That we might be inspired.
So thank God for the little songbird,
Who each day does his duty,
Thank God for His creation,
Filled with such delicate beauty.