Lingering on Saturday: As a Hen Gathers Her Brood
I lean back at the bottom of the blue plastic slide, aware of my hair sticking to the static, the sandburs piercing the soles of my shoes, and our English words echoing off the wall that lines the perimeter of the park, our clunky foreignness flittering up to the open windows.
The playground in this neighborhood is built into the side of a hill. One end of the park slopes dramatically down to a road lined with stone houses and front yard gardens. The other side slants up to another row of homes perched at the top of the hill. Their large living room windows, flanked with heavy lace curtains, gaze down into the playground. The park’s unusual position—nestled into the hill of a residential neighborhood—creates a sense of intimacy or, depending on who you are, a sense of exposure.
In the middle of a game of hide and seek, I wait for my daughter to finish counting: eight, nine, eleven, forty-teen… She knows where I am because she told me exactly where to hide.
I stare up at the clouds as she pretends to look for me. A plane cuts through the sky, and I dream of one day being able to drift above these clouds in an airplane with my whole family next to me, across borders and oceans, to a place with much more stability and a life beyond here.
Like the sharp burs fixed to the bottom of my shoes, the weighty grief of unanswered prayers remains stuck to me.
A large bird’s nest balances high in one of the still-bare ash trees. Two sparrows dance from branch to branch creating all kinds of ruckus that sound out of place on this clear, cool day.
Last year, on a rare visit home to the United States, we discovered a duck’s nest hidden behind a bush against my parents’ house. For whatever reason, a mallard duck chose this spot in the middle of a suburban development to lay and incubate her half-dozen eggs.
Hours and hours each day, the duck would fiercely protect her clutch. She would stay silent and vigilant, occasionally rotating to ensure her eggs were all equally warm, leaving only for short periods to look for food and water.
One day my daughter and I saw her push her beak deep into her chest and pluck out feathers, one by one. At her feet lay a thick blanket of white down. While the mother duck had built most of her nest with sticks and leaves, the padding came from portions of her own body.
We stood there in solemn reverence, watching the duck give to her unhatched eggs the feathers closest to her heart, the best pieces of herself.
It seemed too late in the season to lay eggs. With the unpredictable Midwestern weather—fierce, cold winds one day and blazing hot sun the next—I was unsure the eggs would even hatch. Not to mention, the nearest body of water was a man-made lake several blocks down the road.
I wondered if the duck was nervous, too. Did she know the timing and location were less than ideal?
But each time we checked on her, her beak was tucked gracefully under her wing, and her soft down feathers were arranged carefully around her clutch. She was calm and poised, waiting for life to crack open, doing what was intrinsic to her.
In the Easter season, just after Jesus’s death and before his resurrection is an often overlooked day in the Holy Week: Holy Saturday. While Friday was death and Sunday was life, Saturday was uncertain.
In the wake of his crucifixion, we can imagine Jesus’s family and followers were left with disorientating heartache. After seeing their teacher, friend, and son die a criminal’s death on the cross, everyone held a collective breath: Will he do what he said he would do?
Today, we spend most of our Holy Saturdays prepping the ham, setting out church outfits, and filling plastic eggs with candy. But our buzz and busyness during this holiday can mask a deeper truth. So many moments in our faith are filled with the waiting that comes during Holy Saturday, sitting in that uncomfortable tension where the stone has yet to roll away, questioning if everything is going to work out.
Dashed hopes, broken promises, unfulfilled dreams—the slow, shadowy hours of Holy Saturday mark the terrain for many of us. We know the hazy grief that comes after loss. We know the pain of standing in the pitch dark, waiting for a pinprick of light to shine through.
One day during that late Midwestern spring, the duck was all that was on my daughter’s mind after we returned from an out-of-town trip. She hopped down from the car and headed for the bush against the house. I trailed behind her, hesitant. It had been much longer than a month—the average length of time a duck is supposed to incubate her eggs.
After a gasp of excitement from my daughter, I peeked into the bush. The nest was empty, and the mother duck was gone. Left in her absence were the broken pieces of empty shells—while three unhatched eggs still lay in the shadows.
We stood there for a bewildered moment, trying to comprehend what we’d missed. We’ll never know what exactly happened, of course, but I like to imagine that in the small hours of the morning, the duck cleaned and dried off her healthy fledglings while also grieving the unhatched eggs she knew she must soon leave behind. Perhaps then, the three fluffy yellow chicks made the risky journey to the lake, following their mother in a line, like a sacred procession, where they now live a safe and quiet life on its shores.
One of the most tender depictions of God is that of a mother hen. Leading up to Jesus’s death and his ultimate resurrection, he laments to Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).
Despite Jerusalem’s waywardness, Jesus ached to embrace the broken world in his wings. Sometime later, his body would be nailed to a cross, his arms outstretched, his life given for his children.
Our grief and uncertainty are no match for the Cross. I rest in that truth while I still wait for answers to my prayers, for my family to put down roots someplace stable, and for our Resurrection Sunday to come.
God, who became human, is no stranger to suffering. Like us, God knows sorrow and heartache. But the image of God as a mother duck is worth pondering this Easter season. When uncertainty clouds our view, God, in tenderness, maternal protection, and self-sacrificial love, longs to pull us near.
While Holy Saturday is this in-between space riddled with question marks, the glorious wonder of this day is that God is here. In the depths of confusion and the crossroads of loss and life, God’s love welcomes us. And until the sun rises, God sits in the dark, wings enfolding us.
Back in the neighborhood park, I hear my daughter’s heavy, excited breathing as she gallops toward the playground’s steps. I lean my head all the way back on the slide so my face is practically upside down and watch as she comes into view at the top. She shrieks with delight when she sees me at the bottom of the slide, even though she knew I was there the whole time.
Hurrying to the Resurrection without first recognizing the uncertainty of Saturday misses the miracle of God’s presence. It is here where God waits, arms open, longing to gather us close.
When Saturday comes, let us not race towards Sunday but instead slow down. Let us first linger on Holy Saturday, turning to the loving presence of the mother-hen God. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection, we will forever find refuge under the shadow of those blessed wings.
Sarah Bahiraei hopped a plane to Turkey in 2014 with a one-way ticket in hand. She lives there with her husband, Afshin, and daughter, Esther. She writes about faith, immigration, and living in the in-between on her blog onefootonboth.com.
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