Jim Burklo’s website www.jimburklo.com
Reflection: The Clay Bird ~Jim Burklo January 8, 2017
When Yeshua was born, a star exploded in the sky, angels sang, and three astrologers from the East came to honor him. And shepherds came, too. They sat before the manger where the little baby lay. The astrologers placed treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the child.
One of the shepherds took a little clay bird-shaped ocarina out of his tunic and blew a simple, joyful tune, his fingers dancing over its little holes as he blew through the hole in the bird’s mouth. Then he set it next to the other treasures as a gift to the baby.
As he grew, the clay ocarina was Yeshua’s most prized possession. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were useless as playthings! Yeshua wandered the dusty streets of Nazareth playing simple, joyful tunes. Until one day, when a group of older boys grabbed it away from him. “We hate your music!” they yelled and taunted. One of them smashed the clay bird on a rock, breaking it to bits, and they laughed as they ran away.
It happened in front of Ezra’s workshop.
The potter, his hands spattered with wet clay, heard the commotion and looked over the wall.
He saw tears running down Yeshua’s cheeks. He brought the boy into his workshop. “The bird was my best friend!” wept Yeshua. Ezra wrapped his arm around Yeshua’s shoulder.
“Remember this, when people reject you or hurt you. Just like your bird was made from a lump of clay, so God made you out of a lump of clay and breathed life into you. That breath is forever, and nobody can take it away from you, even if they break your clay. Always remember who you are: the eternal breath of God. Here, sit next to me. I’ll give you some clay and you can make yourself a new friend out of it.”
Yeshua wiped the tears from his eyes, and quietly sat down at Ezra’s work bench with the lump of clay. He looked at it for a while. He thought about what Ezra had said. Dipping his hand in a basin of water to keep the clay wet, as Ezra had taught him, he slowly, carefully worked.
“Here, Ezra,” said Yeshua. “Do you like it?”
“Oh! What a beautiful bird! Your new friend! What beautiful feathers you have marked into the clay!” asked Ezra. “But he only has one hole, in his mouth…”
“That’s so she can breathe,” said Yeshua. “So she can be alive, and make music all by herself.”
Ezra laughed. “That’s wonderful! Now you wash up and go home, and come back tomorrow. I’m going to fire your bird in the oven to make it hard. Tomorrow you can pick it up and take it with you!”
Yeshua thanked him and walked home, feeling happy inside.
The next day, he went to the shop of Ezra the potter. The bird was on a rough wooden plank near the potting wheel. It was hard and smooth and beautiful. “Do you like it?” asked Ezra.
Yeshua smiled as he stroked it and held it close to his chest. “Oh yes, I like it!” he said, looking into Ezra’s eyes with grateful joy.
And then Yeshua put his lips around the beak of the clay bird. “You’re going to make itbreathe?” Ezra laughed. Yeshua nodded and blew into the clay bird.
Ezra’s jaw dropped as he saw the tail of the bird twitch once, then twice. Where marks on clay once had been, real feathers spread out and fluttered. Yeshua held the bird in his hand as it came to life, its clay eyes giving way to bright, glistening ones; its beak moving as it sang. Ezra backed up, terrified. “No, no, it can’t be!” he muttered.
The bird flew up and around Yeshua’s head a few times, singing beautifully, and then returned to perch on his hand. “Be free,” said Yeshua. “And always remember who you are!” The bird rose up and circled his head over and over, chirping wildly, and then flew away.
Ezra was shaking with fear as Yeshua spoke. “Thank you, Ezra. You made me feel better yesterday. You reminded me of who I really am. And you helped me find a friend!” Ezra blubbered a response as Yeshua ran joyfully home.
When Yeshua was a young man, he went to the Jordan River to be baptized. His cousin, John, did a ceremony of washing people clean of their mistakes and failures, so they could feel closer to God. Yeshua wanted to be as close to God as he possibly could get.
John was surprised when he saw his cousin standing in the line by the river, waiting to be baptized. John wondered if Yeshua had ever made a mistake or had any failures. Yeshua was the kindest person John had ever known. Why would he need to be washed clean? But Yeshua had his reasons, and wanted John to do the ceremony. And as soon as John poured the water over Yeshua’s head, standing in the middle of the river, the bird appeared over them.Yeshua looked up and saw it. “My friend! You’ve returned!” And the bird circled his head, over and over, chirping excitedly. Yeshua put out his hand and the bird landed on it. The bird chirped, and Yeshua spoke to it in return. As their conversation continued, John fell on his knees in the river, and as the water rushed around him, he prayed that he could be as close to God as was his cousin Yeshua.
After a while, as the people waiting by the river stared in amazement, the bird flew out of Yeshua’s hand, and Yeshua followed it.
Above the river was a desolate land of dry and rocky canyons. The bird led Yeshua into one of the canyons, and up the side of a ridge he climbed, until the bird landed on a rock above a flat spot with a view of the valley below. Yeshua sat down, and there he stayed for forty days and forty nights, with the bird sitting above him.
In the middle of the day, he sweated in the hot sun. In the middle of the night, he shivered in the cold wind. He was hungry and thirsty. Over and over and over again, a question repeated itself in his mind: “Who am I?”
Strange, frightening dreams came to him. Or were they real? One night, a voice whispered to him: “I know who you are! You’re a sorcerer. You can make a clay bird fly. So you can make these stones into bread! Prove me right! You can do it!” Yeshua stared at the rocks around him, and in his hunger he wanted more than anything to turn them into loaves of bread. “No!” he yelled aloud into the desert emptiness, his voice echoing. “No! I am not a sorcerer! I’m here for another reason!”
“You are an all-powerful king,” whispered the voice on another night. “Look out over the valley, and the lands beyond. It’s all yours! I know who you are. You are the king of Israel! You have the power of life and death over all the people of this land.” Yeshua trembled, tempted to believe it. “No! No! I am not the new King Herod!”
A week later, the voice whispered again, even more insistently: “You are the all-mighty one! Jump down into the canyon below you. You’ll land on your feet! Prove me right! You’re a superhero!” And Yeshua stared down into the deep, stony canyon, and shrieked “No! No! I have a higher purpose than working wonders!”
On the morning after the fortieth night, the bird fluttered right over his head, trying to get his attention. He was so exhausted, body and soul, that he didn’t notice it at first. Then the bird fluttered in front of his face. He put out the palm of his hand and instead of landing, the bird dropped a sweet date into it. Yeshua ate it. The bird flew down to the palm grove in the valley far below, and brought back another one for Yeshua, and kept delivering dates to him until he was strong enough to stand up. “Thank you!” he cried out to the bird when it had brought him the last date. “Now I know who I am!” The bird flew high over him and disappeared.
Yeshua walked back over the mountains to the populated side of the country. He became a rabbi and wandered from town to town, teaching and healing. One day, he led a large group of people to a hillside and gave them lessons about how to get closer to God and be kinder to each other.
Suddenly the bird flew to him, circled his head over and over, chirping loudly. The crowd was amazed. He reached into his pouch and pulled out some crumbs of bread and put them in on his palm and offered them to the bird, which landed on his hand and ate them. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life!” He lifted up his hand and the bird flew away.
As the people were leaving, Yeshua saw that Ezra was in the crowd. They embraced. “I’ve never forgotten your kindness to me that day when I was a little boy,” said Yeshua. “You were there to help me when I needed a friend.” Yeshua told Ezra of the times when the bird had visited him.
“The clay bird visited you today,” said Ezra. “I recognized it. I hope it still reminds you of who you really are.”
“It does, dear Ezra, it does!” said Yeshua, embracing him again.
Yeshua had many followers who wanted to join him in being close to God and being compassionate to each other. But others were jealous of his fame. They were afraid he might become too powerful and deprive them of their wealth and influence. So they decided to kill him. They bribed one of his friends to betray him, and they caught him and took him away to be beaten and then crucified.
Ezra was there, standing behind the crowds that watched what was happening to Yeshua, hoping and praying that somehow his life could be spared. When he looked toward the cross, he saw the bird flying frantically around Yeshua, chirping. Ezra watched it fly to a date tree and bring back fruit for Yeshua, who didn’t have the strength to eat it. But when Yeshua saw his friend, the bird, he remembered again who he was. He got up just enough strength to utter these words:
“Forgive them!” And then he died.
After the soldiers took Yeshua down and carried his body away from the cross, and the crowds walked away, Ezra went up to the cross to see if the bird was still there. There was only silence. No fluttering of wings, no singing. But there, at the bottom of the cross, was the clay bird that Yeshua had made so many years before.
Ezra picked it up, whispered a prayer, and then blew into its beak. He held it out in hope that it would come alive and fly away, but there it remained, smooth and hard, in the palm of his hand.
Fifty-three days later, Yeshua’s friends held a secret meeting in Jerusalem, and Ezra attended, carrying the clay bird with him. The room was packed with people who were talking all at once. Some were crying, some were arguing. “Who are we, now that Yeshua is gone?” In the midst of the confusion, Ezra elbowed his way to the middle of the room and lifted the clay bird to his lips and blew into its beak. The people stared at him, confused. “Trust me!” he yelled. “Each of you, blow into the beak of the clay bird!” The crowd went silent. He held it up to the lips of each person in the room.
And just as the last person blew into the bird’s beak, it came alive, and flew out the window. Seconds later, it returned, leading a flock of birds into the room. The flapping of the birds’ wings stirred the air like a strong wind, and all the people in the room were amazed. And then the bird flew around the room in a circle, and led the rest of the birds outside and away.
As the people stood in stunned silence, Ezra began to speak. He told the story of how Yeshua had made the clay bird come alive when he was a child, and how it came back to him to remind him of who he was. He told them how he found the clay bird at the foot of the cross when Yeshua died. And when Ezra finished the story, he said, “You and Yeshua are one, as long as you stay together as a community, remembering him. You, like he, are the breath of God that brought you to life. So go, fly free, serve each other and everyone you meet. Remember who you are, and stay as close to God as you can!”
NOTES: This story is based on myths about Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) that appear in the Bible and in other traditions. The Koran (in Surah 3:49 and Surah 5:110) says that Jesus (Isa) made a clay bird and then brought it to life to make it sing. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical early Christian document, says that, at age 5, Jesus made twelve sparrows out of clay, clapped his hands, and they flew away. In Matthew 3, a dove alighted on Jesus when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, and in Matthew 4, “angels came and waited on him (Jesus)” at the end of his forty day temptation in the wilderness. Matthew 6 includes the part of Jesus’ sermon
on the Mount about looking at the birds of the air. In Acts 2, the followers of Jesus gathered for the celebration of Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California