As Jesus leaves the Temple area in Jerusalem he is quoted as having said:
Matt. 23:37 ¶ “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (NIV)
This saying is also found in Luke 13:34 as Jesus is progressing towards Jerusalem. This idea of protection and tender concern is also found in passages such as Psalms 17:8, 36:7, and 91:4.
In glancing at a number of commentaries on the Matthew 23 and Luke 13 passages, all I found were general statements about “protection” and “tenderness.” However, I once heard a lecture by N. T. Wright where he seemed to suggest that what was involved here was a “barn yard fire,” where the mother hen gathered her chicks under her wings. After the fire swept though the barn yard the mother hen had been incinerated, but the chicks under her wings were still alive—the hen sacrificing her life for her chicks.
This interpretation never struck me as too plausible and after lecturing to an adult group one of the participants came up to me and described a much more plausible explanation:
He said that he had grown up on a farm and that a hen has a variety of informative “clucks.” For example a certain clucking sound would call her chicks to eat. He also said that as a prank, he would cut out a cardboard eagle or hawk, affix it to a long stick, and would then maneuver it so that the shadow of the bird of prey would fall within the vision of the hen. Upon seeing [the shadow of the fake] bird of prey she would utter a special clucking sound that called her chicks to gather under her wings for protection from the danger! This of course is what she would do when a real bird of prey was threatening her or her chicks. (my paraphrase)
Again, the hen sacrificing her life for her chicks. I had not heard such an informative comment on this passage before—but then I am not a farmer, nor the son of a farmer!
The altar on which the above mosaic is found is located in the Roman Catholic Church Dominus Flevit that commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) as he entered the city from the east.
You can view/download 10 images of Dominus Flevit Here.