Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Written in Water #22: The Miracle of the Sparrows


All I have to show you is this bird
I made with fingers, spit and clay.
I breathed on it like Jesus had, I heard,
To make it come alive and fly away.


At the end of the Gospel of John, the evangelist writes,
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
John 21:25
I've always liked that as an ending. It feels like a recognition of the shortcomings of the story's form and an assertion of validity in a humble, eloquent way. There are other versions of Christ's story, the evangelist is saying, and they are no more or less valid than this one.

And it's true, John's Gospel belongs to a different strand to the other three canonical stories, and different again from those other traditions which did not enter the canon, but which persisted for a long time, and which still persist.

The Infancy Gospels are savage, spiteful texts that tell of a boy Jesus crackling with murderous divine fury who strikes people dead for the smallest slight. Among his victims we find: a schoolmaster who tries to discipline him for back-talk; a kid who, running, accidentally collides with Jesus; a kid who does the equivalent of kicking over Jesus's sandcastle. But more than one (for example, the Protoevangelium of Thomas and Pseudo-Matthew) describes the Miracle of the Sparrows.

Jesus is playing by the river. He's making birds – sparrows, in some versions – out of river clay. Someone observes that it's the Sabbath (of course it is) and he shouldn't be doing that. Jesus breathes on the birds, or claps his hands, and they come to life and fly away.

You can find this account referenced very briefly in the Qur'an too, which gives it a respectability that perhaps other miracles of Jesus from the apocryphal Gospels don't: Jesus says he will perform the miracle in Surah 3 (Ali 'Imran) 49 and it's called back in 5 (Al-Ma'idah) 110. This implies that the Jesus of the Qur'an is an adult when he does this.

Perhaps in a new century when a lot of people are no longer familiar with the stories of the New Testament, we can reclaim the strangeness of Jesus's miracles.

All of the miracles of Jesus are phatic; that is, they exist in their narratives to show an uncomprehending or unbelieving world that he is special. That he is divine, or given license by the divine, depending on who is writing. But within that, they exist in three categories: miracles of aid, miracles of spite, and purely phatic miracles which do nothing else, other than to reveal this divinity.

Most, the majority, are aid: the feedings, the healings, the resurrections (of a child, of a young man, and ultimately of himself). When only one leper of ten comes back to thank Jesus (Luke 17), the disappointment is of a failed public relations coup, of nine who don't spread the word, of thwarted phasis. When Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2), he complains that it's too soon, but does the miracle anyway. The text doesn't contradict itself, but it contradicts its protagonist: he might deny it, but it is his time, it is the beginning of the story, and we can tell that because it's the second page, and there are many more pages to come, and it is time for him to become its hero.

Of the other two kinds, neither is well-represented in the four canonical Gospels. The withering of the fig tree in Matthew 11 is the sole example of a miraculous act of spite in the canon; I've heard commentators tie themselves in knots over it, but it amounts to Jesus going to pick a fig from a tree that turns out to have no fruit, and cursing the tree, and the tree dying. And it's an act that the evangelist uses, as all the evangelists do, as a sign of Christ's divinity, but it sits uneasily with us, a Jesus who curses nature when nature won't fulfil his desires. The boy Jesus of the apocrypha, vengeful and swift to take irreversible action, would perhaps have more in common with this Jesus.

The scene at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9) falls into the third category. It has Jesus wreathed in light, meeting with the ghosts of Moses and Elijah and named "Son" by the voice of God. Peter, the witness, behaves as one does in a dream, which is telling: Peter is prone to visions. The vision ends.

Perhaps the miracle of the sparrows falls in the latter category,  but even so it's arguably a stranger story, more awkward than any of the (strange, awkward) others, for Jesus bestows life that wasn't there to begin with. He picked the right material for it; clay was the raw material from which God crafts Adam. That's a detail on which all the Jewish narratives about Adam that I know about seem to agree. Clay is the unliving substance from which the design makes life. The name "Adam" is in fact a pun on the Hebrew word for clay (adamah).

And by the Middle Ages, the Jewish magical tradition had developed the reputation of knowing the techniques through which one might create a golem, a man made of clay with the alphanumeric symbols of life and death inscribed on his forehead. Efface part of the inscription, and he becomes simply clay once more. The most famous golem is Rabbi Loew's, the 16th century Golem of Prague, which went out of control one night when the Rabbi forgot to smudge the wet clay on the golem's brow. Bored and lonely, the creature ran amok, setting the city on fire. The Rabbi, humbled, caught up with his creation and smudged out the aleph on the golem's forehead, turning emet (truth) into met (death). That was the end of the golem.

The Qur'an, although brief, as if expecting you to know the story of the birds, nonetheless makes it explicit that the birds Jesus makes turn into real birds, a detail missing from the older, longer versions. I wonder if, like me, the Qur'an imagined that someone might picture the birds as if still made of clay and yet flying, tiny golems.

The Qur'an of course must also include some explanation that this is by the permission of Allah, and each time the Surahs reference the story this is indeed the case. When the Qur'an was written, it would have been important to explain that Jesus was not, as the Christians claimed, one of the three persons of God, distinct yet indivisible, and this story on its own is one of the very few cases of Jesus doing (rather than saying) a thing that could only be the province of the divinity. Jesus is not the only Biblical figure to resurrect the dead (Elijah does so before, Peter after) but to bring life back to the recently dead is one thing. To create it fresh from the raw material of existence is quite another. It's the business of a demiurge, and the product of a peculiarly Jewish mythology.

Perhaps its strangeness and beauty is the reason it persisted into Catholic folklore, and from there into the most sacred text of Islam, where its survival is assured.


I was digging a hole on Saturday, for a tree. Exhausted, three feet down, I had hit clay. As I sat on the edge of the hole I took a lump of still-wet clay in my hands and fashioned a bird, on a whim. As I got my breath back and stretched, and drank a mug of tea, I sat on the side of the hole and looked at it, and a few lines of verse popped into my head. By the time I had finished, and was planting the tree, the bird had crumbled, and I buried it.

I still don't know why it occurred to me to do that. Creation is a funny thing, often apparently pointless, idle. The thought of Jesus, mucking about in the mud, making birds just because he can, not for anyone else, appeals to me. When someone negates his casual right to make something, just for fun, he gestures, perhaps carelessly, and the birds come to life and fly away. He forgets about them, but they're not forgotten.

I suppose the thing to take away is that making is a sacred, magical act, even for play, and everything we make, no matter how unskilled, has some potential for life. And that maybe it's better not to know this consciously, to know it the way children do. Make a thing, clap your hands, watch it fly away, forget it.

That's all.

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