Remember junior high English class when you learned about metaphors and similes? They’re potent terms of comparison. The only difference is that similes compare two things using like or as. In my opinion, there’s nothing like a great metaphor or simile to capture the human experience! And so it is with this simile "like a sparrow on the housetop.”
The Psalmist, after crying out in agony for God to hear his earnest appeal, wrote:
I lie awake, And am like a sparrow alone on the housetop.
Psalm 102:7 (NRSV)
Classic writers like St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila referred to this sparrow as a depiction of the soul’s longing for God amidst a lonely, desperate time. There’s something haunting, resonating about a lone sparrow on the housetop. I would suggest that it embodies the experience of our souls these days as we respond to the anxiety, isolation, and disrupted sleep amid Covid-19.
After all, what’s more common than a sparrow?
The pandemic, as many have noted, has been a great equalizer. It has required all of us, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, famous or infamous, to experience a common plight, a common susceptibility. We’ve all been asked to take common measures to protect one another, actions on behalf of the common good.
Our common plight has also evoked a fair amount of resistance. Who wants to be as ordinary and undistinguished as a common sparrow? This predicament collides with the most established and rampant infectious disease in the West—individualism—which is often code for doing our own thing, no matter whether it’s at the expense of the common good. It’s the resistance witnessed this week in the viral video of an unmasked man at Costco who was asked to leave. His retort, “I’m doing it because I woke up in a free country!”
While much of what drives human vitriol is the ego’s insistence that it must distinguish itself to be noticed and valued, the sparrow suggests otherwise. It’s lonely perch on the housetop invites us to embrace our commonness and consider the gift in it. We can relate to each other. We share much in our common humanity. We are all vulnerable. We all have needs. We are all spiritual beings with spiritual longings for God that surface most when we feel defenseless.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that though five sparrows have little monetary value, God never forgets a single one of them. And if God has as much regard and affection for a sparrow, how much more regard and affection does God have for us? (Luke 12: 6-7)
St. John envisioned the sparrow on the housetop as someone seeking the “high, lonely places” where one engages with God. In her perch, little sparrow turns toward the wind, just as the soul of the seeker turns toward the Spirit of Love. She sings out her song for God and her neighbors to hear. The ubiquitous sparrow, then, is a positive reminder to the prayerful of our common dilemma, our common concerns.
So, the next time you see a sparrow, whether on the ground or perched on a housetop, may it be a reminder of your common place among common people. And may said sparrow prompt you to pray. Why? Because we woke up this morning in a free country, a gift we honor by doing what is best for the common good and by living out the gospel to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Happy Memorial Day!