Friday, June 09, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 5: Robin

Here in the northeastern US, robins are one of the most familiar and beloved birds. They've come to be known as a harbinger of spring: when the robins start showing up on your lawn, then you know that winter's time is over (and in this respect, robins are far more trustworthy than certain other celebrated meteorological prognosticators in the animal kingdom--that's right, groundhogs, I'm talking about you). These robins seek out their preferred habitat, which we thoughtfully provide for them--broad, short-cropped lawns, perfect for finding worms. Their bright red breasts and their cheery whistles mark the advent of greener days, and alleviate a bit the dampness and the chill of springtime rains (unless, of course, you're Emily Dickinson, in which case you dread that first robin so). But robins have also, for many centuries, been used as symbols of Christ, his passion, and the grace of God. But before we get to that, here are some interesting facts about robins:

- There are a number of species called "robins" in the world. The two most well-known are the American Robin and the European Robin. Ironically, these two birds are not really closely related at all. They share the same name simply because of their coloring. European Robins, just as common and beloved in Europe as their counterparts are in America, have a bright orange-red breast. Their original name in English was simply "redbreast" (there not being a word for the color orange at the time). "Robin" came in as a way of personalizing this charming species, which everyone knew and loved: Robin was actually a personal nickname, a diminutive of "Robert," and so the European Robin came to have a charming human-like moniker, "Robin Redbreast." When British colonists began settling in eastern North America, they noticed a bird that reminded them of their beloved Robin Redbreast, having as it did a similar color scheme and a similar habit of looking for worms, and so they called it a robin. In actuality, though, the noticeably smaller European Robin is a member of the Old World flycatcher family, while the larger American Robin is a member of the thrush family (and thus a close relative of that other quintessentially English bird, the blackbird). Now that you know that, see if you can spot the grave ornithological error in the classic 1964 film Mary Poppins.

- European robins are fearless little birds, being known to come close to human activity (or to other large animals that might stir up the ground and give them an opportunity to find worms). But this trait also means that, despite the common preconception that they are cheery, friendly little things, their fearlessness can lead them to be aggressive. Male robins will violently attack rivals (or sometimes other small birds), occasionally even killing them. 

- While in the northeastern US robins are seen as a sign of spring, in Britain they are associated with Christmas. Since the Victorian period, robins have appeared as a common image on Christmas cards and postage stamps.

- The American robin is notable in that it flourishes in a wide variety of habitats across the continent, proving adaptable to mountains, swamps, prairies, and woodlands with equal ease. It is also impressive in combining both avian forms of movement--with wings (flying) and with legs (running and hopping)--and being very good at both. 

In the Christian tradition, a set of medieval etiological tales rose up around robins. In one version, a robin protected the Christ-child during the holy family's flight to Egypt, catching sparks from a fire on its breast to prevent them from falling on baby Jesus. Its orange-red breast is a reminder and reward for its selfless service to the Lord of all creation. Other versions say that the robin received its red breast while it was mercifully fetching water for those undergoing purifying trials in Purgatory. The most famous etiological tale about its red breast, however, connects the robin to the crucifixion. It is said that a robin perched on the cross as Jesus died, and received its red breast from a splash of the Savior's blood after it tried to pluck a thorn from his brow (or, alternatively, as it came near to sing in Jesus' ear and bring him comfort from his pain). In the Christian artistic tradition, a free robin often symbolizes the grace of God.

So the next time you see a robin, remember the suffering of our Lord, and commit to serve him as selflessly as these fabled birds once did.