We are used to claims that discoveries and insights from the physical and biological sciences put hard limits on the truthfulness of the Bible, and even to strident assertions that they actually disprove its narrative. But careful and scientific study of the natural world—God’s second book of revelation—can also bring out aspects of the Bible’s story and imagery that we would have missed, especially when seen through the synthesizing lens of a poet. A combination of observation and interpretation can help us better appreciate the way the whole world speaks of the glory of its Creator, including those parts we are inclined to find supremely inglorious.
An example of the way poetry helps re-make our interpretive framework is Richard Wilbur’s poem, Still, Citizen Sparrow. Directly addressing our “natural” revulsion for death and those contaminated with it, the poem contrasts the small “darting” sparrow with the vulture—an unwelcome visitor in the sparrow’s space. Surely, the vulture must seem an awkward and ungainly abomination in the fruitful orderliness the smaller bird inhabits, for those “orchard aisles” hint at both a garden and a church. Yet the poem also presents a two-fold defense of this most un-clean of birds, beginning with the difference between how it seems on the ground and how it is in its own element, at the “tip of the sky.” “[N]o more beautiful bird is in heaven's height “, Wilbur tells us, “No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight.” But more than just his aeronautic skills are at issue. It is the vulture’s “rotten office”—the very thing that makes it so repulsive to our sensibilities—that Wilbur names as its saving grace.
The “naked-headed one. . . Devours death, mocks mutability, / Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.” This description of the vulture could be a purely naturalistic assessment of the importance of biological recycling, but a turn at the poem’s fourth stanza takes its imagery in an explicitly scriptural direction. From here on, it connects the vulture with Noah, and the sparrows (and implicitly us) as those “who would have died / Gladly with all [they] knew” rather than put up with the tedium and apparent foolishness of Noah’s incessant sawing and hammering. At last, Wilbur implores the sparrows to consider how “high and lonely” was Noah’s time on the waters as “He rocked his only world, and everyone's.”
The vulture here is more than just “the hero” of the poem, as Wilbur puts it, but exactly what he stands for is not immediately clear. In terms of the great narrative of the Bible, we are used to thinking of ourselves and all humanity as “Adam’s sons,” and even as the “sons of Abraham”; in Christ, both of those images are completed and fulfilled, and all of us redeemed. But Still, Citizen Sparrow ends not with a claim of kinship with Adam or Abraham, but with this: “all men are Noah's sons.” Might Noah also be a type of Christ? How does the all-too-natural vulture connect with it, deepening our understanding the role and experience of Jesus as the Messiah?
Following Wilbur’s account of the nobility of the vulture, we can make the connection between it and Jesus’ role of overcoming death. But what unites them more subtly (and perhaps even more poignantly in this season of Lent) is shame and rejection, even exile. These terms are not at all unrelated to death, for touching the dead was one of the things that made an Israelite ceremonially unclean, and vultures’ ordinary habits might account for their similarly-rejected status in the Jewish bestiary. Elsewhere in the Bible, the characteristic baldness of the vulture provides imagery of shame, despair and humiliation, as in Micah 1:16: Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair, for the children of your delight; make yourselves as bald as the vulture, for they shall go from you into exile.But personal ridicule and rejection are also part of the package. Noah’s plan for saving his race seemed foolishness to his contemporaries, all the more because they rejected the idea that they were in need of salvation at all. No less did the Jewish leaders laugh at Jesus’ announcement that he would rebuild the Temple in three days, and his own disciple rebuke him for his plan to go to Jerusalem and die. But surely in the passion of Holy Week, Jesus’ shame was complete, coming both from his own people and from the gentiles to whom he was turned over. He was mocked, rejected, and killed. By his death—especially on the cross—he seemed to confirm to the people of Israel that he was not the savior, after all. Rather, he appeared as one accursed, tainted by the means as much as the fact of his death, though the very humiliation and rejection was the path by which he brought renewal.
Surely the vulture is an unlikely symbol for Christ, especially when wrapped up with the character of Noah. But the key insight of the poem and the image actually lies in the relationship between the vulture and the sparrow, the latter of which serves as our stand-in. We are too often like that small bird in Wilbur’s account, wanting a more noble and glorious emblem than this of how the Kingdom bears on our world, wishing ever still to banish the unclean from our presence and keep our own lives neat and tidy. The cause of Christ is not neat or tidy, though, and brings ridicule and rejection from our peers more often than it brings honor. As we draw close to Jerusalem with Jesus, may we be willing to accept the “rotten office” ourselves, and to take his (and the vulture’s) perspective on rejection—in his story, and in our own.
“Still, Citizen Sparrow”
by Richard Wilbur
Still, citizen sparrow, this vulture which you call
Unnatural, let him but lumber again to air
Over the rotten office, let him bear
The carrion ballast up, and at the tall
Tip of the sky lie cruising. Then you'll see
That no more beautiful bird is in heaven's height,
No wider more placid wings, no watchfuller flight;
He shoulders nature there, the frightfully free,
The naked-headed one. Pardon him, you
Who dart in the orchard aisles, for it is he
Devours death, mocks mutability,
Has heart to make an end, keeps nature new.
Thinking of Noah, childheart, try to forget
How for so many bedlam hours his saw
Soured the song of birds with its wheezy gnaw,
And the slam of his hammer all the day beset
The people's ears. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where
He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah's sons.
From Richard Wilbur: New and Collected Poems. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988: p. 318. ©Richard Wilbur.
Richard Wilbur is a poet, translator, and playwright, and was appointed as the second Poet Laureate of the United States in 1987. Please read the poem aloud, then click here to buy your own copy of Wilbur’s latest work, Anterooms: New Poems and Translations.