I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond. I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them. Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees. I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…
In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable. I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings. What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1 In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death. And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation. Not quite death, but close enough.
In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.” And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”. This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.
I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels. In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:
When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road
Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight
Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2
When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls. According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3 When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ. Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.
Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed. They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56). When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture. It seems so mundane. But I am struck by the description of the women. In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.
When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers. Mere followers of the Way. We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life. While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible. He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.
…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed. Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night. I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me. And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.
1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death. African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way. See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl> and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html>. I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.
2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl>
3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html>