Did you ever notice that half of the gifts are birds? First a partridge, yesterday turtle doves, today “three French hens,” tomorrow calling birds, Then after the “five go-old rings,” there are geese and swans.
Why “French” hens? Well, it seems that they are a special breed of chickens, called Faverolles, first developed in France in the 1860s. Just as turtle doves is not to be confused with your ordinary pigeons perched on statues in urban parks, so these French hens are really classy chicks.
They are very mild-mannered and docile, and so make great pets; they are great layers and their eggs are wonderful; and their meat is delicious. They are also beautiful, and are often bred specifically for exhibition. So giving three females to your sweetie poses an interesting (and difficult) set of dilemmas for her or him:
Do I breed them, which would be hard work, necessitate buying a properly qualified male (or paying for his services)? Perhaps I could sell or trade one of the hens for this. But I was given three hens. Is that what my beloved would want? It might end up that I’m paying more attention to the birds than I am to him or her. Then again, they might win some contests, and we could live really well with these birds as money makers. Or I could lose my shirt on them.
Well, I could always just keep them as laying hens. Not much profit in that, but we’ll have some good breakfasts for a while. On the other hand, I’m getting some geese in a few days who are producing eggs. Perhaps I should wait on the eggs bit.
They are nice pets. They tell me their meat is delicious, but can I bear to eat my PETS?
Isn’t it that way with most of life’s choices? God’s gifts basically give us raw materials and/or tools, but the choice of what to do with them is left up to us. All choices involve trade-offs, and some are worse than others. And God says, “Hey, I’m giving you what you need, not necessarily what you asked for or want. What are you going to do with it?”
And then, God is silent . . . maddeningly silent.
The Holy Innocents, infants martyred by Herod in silent witness to the infant Jesus, Messiah and King, have a lot to teach us. Etymologically, the word “infant” comes from the Latin word for “unable to speak.” “Martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.”
Human life was cheap in the days of ancient Greece and Rome. It is equally so in our day as well; although we make a pretense at respecting life, we are very selective about whose life has any value. Often quite arbitrary too – out of sight out of mind. While we profess to uphold the dignity and sanctity of human life, we all need to ask ourselves how consistent we really are in practice. For whom will we go the extra mile to preserve and safeguard, and to whom do we fail to pay attention? Not one of us is without guilt in this regard, even if we criticize and condemn others for their blind spots regarding whose life is worth defending.
My homily on the Holy Innocents today.