By Veronica Szczygiel, Ph.D.
Knowing that I have become slightly obsessed with birds and birdwatching over the past year, my father shared with me a poem he came across in a recent issue of The New York Times magazine. It was “The Year of the Goldfinches” by Ada Limón, and it moved me for several reasons. First, it described the ecstatic, peaceful, and often serendipitous experience of the birdwatcher, who must exercise patient restraint and count on a little bit of luck (or, in my case, God’s grace) to catch different birds in action.
I am fortunate enough to cultivate with my mother a Brooklyn garden visited by over twenty distinct species of birds—including a hawk!—many of whom had arrived for the first time during this pandemic year. One of those species is the beautiful goldfinch, who feasts from the mesh bag of thistle seeds I hang from a branch.
The second reason I enjoyed this poem was that I feel an inexplicable kinship with the goldfinch, as the bird is my namesake. “Szczygiel” in Polish means “goldfinch,” and I always felt it somehow manifested my spirit: bright, hopeful, a little restless, poetic, free.
The third reason was the connection between Christianity and the goldfinch because, according to the poem, the goldfinch symbolized the resurrection. I never heard this before. Intrigued, I decided to investigate.
A basic internet search revealed to me that the goldfinch indeed represented Christ’s passion and resurrection. However, the goldfinch in question was not the American all-yellow bird but the European goldfinch with black and yellow markings on its wings and a striking red patch on its forehead and chin.
According to legend, this latter goldfinch witnessed Jesus carrying the cross on the path to Golgotha to be crucified. Moved by the intense suffering of the man, the goldfinch alighted atop of Jesus’ head and began to gently pull the thorns out of his head in an effort to ease his suffering. As the finch did so, some of Jesus’ blood splattered onto the bird’s face. This event explained two things: the goldfinch’s penchant for eating thorny thistle seeds and the red markings on its head feathers.
I was glad to learn about this beautiful story. In my research, I even found out that the Church of the Annunciation in Dębe, Poland, prominently displays a beautiful painting of Mary, Jesus, and the goldfinch at the center of its main altar. Though the goldfinch moves me in particular because of my surname, I think this little bird can inspire all of us during Eastertide. This story makes me ask myself: in my words and actions, am I pulling out thorns or putting them in? In other words, am I easing Jesus’ suffering or am I adding to it?
For every action, inaction, and wrong action impacts others accordingly, and Jesus in turn. Let us take on the spirit of the goldfinch who felt compassion for the suffering Christ and tried to help, one little thorn at a time.
Veronica Szczygiel, Ph.D. is the Assistant Director of Online Learning of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University.