In Praise of the Chicken
By: Laura Hobgood-Oster, Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies, Southwestern University
“Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Matthew 23:37-38)
“Dominus Flevit” (which means the “Lord wept”) is a lovely teardrop shaped chapel sitting on a hillside (the traditional Mount of Olives) overlooking the city of Jerusalem. Here, at the front of the sanctuary, is a beautiful mosaic image of a chicken with her wings spread out. Her baby chicks are all gathered underneath, safely shielded from any danger. Tradition holds that it on this spot, two thousand years ago, Jesus taught the crowds using the touching image of a mother hen as a symbol for divine love and care. At that point in time, Jesus likely would have seen chickens engaging in this very action, being “mother hens.” So he chose this bird as a symbol of love and protectiveness, her sheltering wings comforting her children, as a metaphor for God’s compassion.
While chickens are not the first animal to come to mind when one is thinking about animals in the history of Christianity, they are an important symbol. Hens and eggs appear on sculptures in ancient churches, on stained glass windows and in paintings hanging in sanctuaries. They are not only a sign of protective love, but also of divine providence. As such, the symbol of the hen gathering her brood remains one of the most gentle and touching images of God’s love.
The hen’s counterpart, the rooster, is also a prominent symbol in Christian memory and art, though this bird reminds the viewer of a less pleasant story. The night before he is crucified, Jesus predicts that Peter, one of his disciples, will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows the next morning. Of course, Peter protests harshly claiming that he would never deny Jesus. But, as the night unfolds the prediction comes true. Right after Peter’s third denial of Jesus, the rooster crows hailing the approaching dawn. With this gospel text in mind, Pope Nicholas I (9th century) declares that all churches should place a rooster on their steeple or in another prominent place to remind the faithful about Peter’s failing. Many churches follow this directive and, still today, roosters can be seen perched on top of steeples.
Since they were first domesticated – likely somewhere in East Asia about 7,500 years ago - chickens have been held as sacred birds in a variety of religious traditions. In Egyptian temples, for example, hens and eggs were understood to be powerful symbols of fertility. This practice continued, spread and was retained by Christianity. At first, and likely starting in Mesopotamia, eggs were painted red to symbolize the blood of Jesus; they were also paralleled to the stone that was rolled away revealing the empty tomb. These egg-connections developed into the elaborate, colorful, festive egg hunts related to Easter.
So when thousands of children move purposefully through fields and yards searching for eggs, they do so as part of a long tradition that considers chickens, roosters and eggs as central symbols of faithfulness and new life. In different countries, eggs from a variety of birds (ostriches, turkeys, etc…) are sacred symbols of fertility. In the U.S., though, these Easter eggs hail from chickens, the same hen who shelters her chicks. When I was a child, most of these eggs were real chicken eggs that we hardboiled and spent hours coloring. Now many are plastic, but even in that artificial form, they are chicken eggs. The chicken – maybe an unlikely symbol for Easter, but one that has been part of this holiday for hundreds of years – is a reminder that animals are an important part of religion.