Sunday, November 5, 2017

Matthew 25.1-13: How to Stay Awake

Keep awake, for you do not know the day or the hour. That's Jesus' parting line in the gospel reading for Proper 27A(32A)/Pentecost 23A (Matthew 25:1-13). How do you keep awake? Count sheep? Drink coffee? Set an alarm to go off regularly?

The ancient writer Pliny, in The Natural History (Book X. Chapter 30), writes: "During the night, also, they (cranes) place sentinels on guard, each of which holds a little stone in its claw: if the bird should happen to fall asleep, the claw becomes relaxed, and the stone falls to the ground, and so convicts it of neglect. The rest sleep in the meanwhile, with the head beneath the wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other: the leader looks out, with neck erect, and gives warning when required."

Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Southern England (Salisbury?). Harley 4751 fol. 39. 2nd quarter of the 13th century. London: British Library.
In the manuscript illustration, the sentry bird is the only one with eyes open. As described by Pliny, the sleeping cranes are each standing on one leg, though all five birds have their heads above their bodies. This is not the case in the manuscript illumination below, where all the birds have "craned" their necks. The sentry crane looks up, while the sleeping cranes have tucked their heads under their wings. The sleeping cranes here are standing on two feet. The sentry crane holds the stone in its claw. 
Bestiary. Manuscript (Sloane MS 3544). 1225-1275. London: British Library.
Pliny's description echoes Aristotle's text from several centuries earlier. In History of Animals, Aristotle writes: When they settle down, the main body go to sleep with their heads under their wing, standing first on one leg and then on the other, while their leader, with his head uncovered, keeps a sharp look out, and when he sees anything of importance signals it with a cry (Book IX.X.).

Who are the people we might identify as our "sentry cranes"? They are the ones who remain awake even as the rest of us sleep. They are the ones who cry out to warn us of impending danger.

For thoughts on the gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture, click here
For another tie between cranes and a gospel story on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page, click here.. 

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