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Before the Dawn

An Easter tale for children (which adults might like, too!)

Little Sparrow loved Joseph’s garden. It was a fine garden with beautiful trees whose branches reached out towards one another like old friends shaking hands. Its gravel paths meandered gracefully among shrubs and all the flowers wore their best clothes. At the far end of the garden was Little Sparrow’s favourite spot – a small cave, cut into the rock, where he could sit on a ledge and stay cool in the heat of the day.

If there was one thing that Little Sparrow loved to do in Joseph’s garden, it was sing. And if there was one kind of singing that Little Sparrow loved, it was joining with the other birds to sing the dawn chorus. To Little Sparrow there was nothing more majestic, nothing more beautiful or heavenly than joining his voice, immature as it was, to the songs of the other birds as they summoned the dawn from her nocturnal rest.

Little Sparrow’s zest for life meant that each morning he always woke an hour before his feathered family and friends. While he waited for the other birds to rise and sing the dawn chorus, Little Sparrow dreamed of being able to start the chorus all by himself.

One morning, as he woke early, he could restrain his dream no longer. Flying to the top of a tree, he nervously cleared his throat and then, as best he could remember, he sang the opening notes of his species’ dawn chorus. The sound of his voice in the hushed and dark garden sounded so childish and intruding. After a few minutes, he regretted he had ever started, and his song petered out into a miserable final note.

But his singing had ruffled the feathers of the bird population of the entire garden. “What’s that awful noise?” warbled a blackbird. “It’s way before time for the chorus,” chirped a finch. “Hey, Pip-Squeak,” chimed a song thrush, swooping down beside Little Sparrow as he perched on the top branch, “what’s with the solo singing? Learn your place and stay out of earshot.”

Little Sparrow’s parents were far from pleased. “I don’t know what’s come over you,” said his mother. “Why can’t you just rest quietly like all the other birds and sing the chorus at the proper time?” Little Sparrow could only shrug his wings. “You’ve been an embarrassment to the rest of us sparrows,” complained his father. “Look, son: the dawn chorus starts the day. Everyone knows nothing ever happens before the dawn. There’s nothing you could ever sing for before the chorus – so quit trying!”

Deeply unhappy, Little Sparrow flew off to the far end of the garden and sat on his ledge in the cool of the cave, alone with his thoughts for the rest of the day.

The next morning, Little Sparrow again woke early. Even though his heart longed to sing, he knew better than to repeat his daring adventure of the previous day. So, he went for an aimless wander through the garden. Presently he bumped into his friend Owl, who was one of the few birds who was always up at that time of night. Owl was so old that no other bird in the garden could say how old he was, but everyone knew he was the wisest of all who flew in Joseph’s garden. “Oh, Owl,” said Little Sparrow, “I am glad to see you.”

Owl smiled at Little Sparrow. “I heard your song yesterday morning,” he said.

“So did everyone else,” moaned Little Sparrow, looking shyly at his claws. “I feel so silly. I so want to sing at this time of day. I just need something to sing for. But I guess everyone’s right when they say that nothing ever happens before the dawn.”

“You have a good heart,” said Owl. “No one must take that from you. Have patience, Little One. I have lived enough years to know that the best things sometimes happen at the most surprising times.” He cocked his head sideways for a brief moment, raised his eyebrows and gave his friend a wink. “I must go,” he said finally. “See you round. It’s Friday tomorrow; maybe the weekend will hold promise for you.”

Little Sparrow felt his spirits rise slightly after seeing Owl, high enough to join with the other birds in singing the dawn chorus at the usual time. But the rest of the day felt very strange to the young bird. The whole area became as dark as the night for several hours around lunchtime. It confused the garden birds no end and they had little idea what the time was for the rest of the day.

All the birds had headed back to their nests by late afternoon, but Little Sparrow was still on his favourite ledge in the garden cave. Suddenly he heard voices coming up the path to the cave. Little Sparrow took to the air and flew to a branch of a tree overlooking the cave entrance to get a better view. A small party of people were coming to the cave. An air of great sadness hung over them as they walked. Little Sparrow could see Joseph in the half-light, pulling a cart. Another man, dressed as a Rabbi, was guiding the cart from behind and three women were following. There was another person lying still on the cart, all wrapped tightly in linen cloths. On reaching the cave entrance, Joseph and the other man lifted the shrouded figure from the cart and laid it reverently on the stone ledge inside the cave. Then they rolled a large stone in front of the entrance and departed from the garden in sorrowful silence.

Little Sparrow stayed motionless on the branch for some time, looking at the stone across his favourite cave. He had the distinct feeling that he had witnessed something very sad, yet significant. Returning to his nest, he lay awake for most of the night, pondering what he had seen. When he woke the next morning, he felt inside a great sadness, that something very important was out of place in the world and yet he didn’t understand why. When it was time to sing the dawn chorus, he found he had no voice at all. The other birds poked fun at his silence, but Little Sparrow was too lost in his own thoughts to hear their unkind taunts.

The young bird spent the rest of that day alone, sitting across from the closed cave entrance on the branch of a tree. Joseph’s garden seemed strangely different since the night before, an eerie silence blanketing the whole place. Little Sparrow had never known it this way. He went to sleep that night still puzzled. The last thing he remembered before he fell asleep was Owl winking at him . . .

Little Sparrow woke with a start even earlier than he usually did the next morning. He tightened his grip on the branch of his tree and looked hurriedly around. Something was different from the day before. The heaviness in the air of the garden had lifted. In its place was . . . well, Little Sparrow couldn’t quite tell what it was – except that there was something stirring in the air.

And then he saw it – a light moving among the trees near to the cave. Curious, Little Sparrow spread his wings and flew towards it. He alighted on a branch just across from the cave. At first he couldn’t see the light at all now that he had got there. Then he heard a voice call his name and, whirring around, he came face to face with a man dressed in shining clothes.

“Little Sparrow,” said the man, “welcome to the first day of the rest of history.”

“Who are you?” replied the bird, with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, “and what do you mean?”

“Little Sparrow, your good heart has been seen,” said the man. “I know you have been told that nothing ever happens before the dawn. Today is going to change all that. Long ago in a garden, the world became a broken place. Today, in this garden, its restoration shall begin. I have a task for you. You must sing to awaken the dawn. You must serenade the Son who is about to rise. You must fill this place with your joyful song, for this is a day that will change all our tomorrows. Will you do it, Little Sparrow? It’s the most important thing that anyone could ever sing for.”

The young bird could neither believe his eyes or his ears. He clung to the branch rigid for a few moments, unable to speak. But something about the shining man’s presence in Joseph’s garden was changing everything and Little Sparrow found himself saying, “Yes . . . yes, I’ll do it. If you think I can.”

The man smiled and his brilliance seem even stronger. “Then, fly, Little Sparrow. Fly to the tallest tree and sing for the dawn.” And suddenly, the man was gone.

Little Sparrow blinked and his bright eyes flashed left and right. The air was still bristling with expectation, even though no other sound could be heard and it was still dark. Little Sparrow’s heart felt like it would burst. He knew exactly what he had to do. Taking to the air, he circled above the tallest tree in Joseph’s garden and came to rest on its highest branch.

With his heart pounding, he took he deepest breath and began to sing. And the song that came forth was the beautiful melody that Joseph’s garden had ever heard. Little Sparrow’s song went on and on, stirring the garden. Animals popped sleepy heads out from their homes and stood in silence, listening to the enchanting song. And the other birds awakened to a solo dawn chorus unlike anything they had ever heard. Blending their voices with Little Sparrow’s, the song became more beautiful still.

Looking down, Little Sparrow saw a light again from over by the cave. He stopped singing, for the chorus of the other birds was by now well-established, and he wanted to be curious again. Flying down, he alighted again on the tree opposite the entrance to the cave. But now he could see that the great stone that had covered the entrance had been rolled aside and from inside the cave came a shining light. Little Sparrow flew into the cave and hovered in wonder as he saw the same shining man he had seen before.

“Welcome, Little Sparrow,” said the man. “You did your job well. See, the Son has risen. This is a day of great joy.”

With his heart bursting again, Little Sparrow turned and flew out of the cave and into the clearing before it. As he did so, another man was standing there in the half-light, holding out his hand to him. Little Sparrow was always wary of strangers and he never accepted food from their hands, but there was something about this man’s beckoning gesture that made the bird fly closer. As he did so, he saw that the man’s outstretched hand bore the scar of a large nail, but his face was more kindly than any person’s face he had ever known. Little Sparrow came to rest on the man’s hand.

For a moment, the man just smiled and looked into the young bird’s eyes. Then he said, “Little Sparrow, yours was the first voice I heard as I came from the cave. There was no finer voice to welcome me back. Thank you for singing for me. You see, it’s no longer true that nothing happens before the dawn.”

The man lifted his hand high and Little Sparrow flew off and circled above the man, an aerial dance of joy, twisting and turning, diving and then soaring high. He was more happy than he had ever been. When he finally came to rest on a nearby branch, he realised that the man had gone. But Little Sparrow was not sad. He knew he had sung for the Son and that each dawn’s chorus would now be a song for him.

Little Sparrow flew up into the air and was met there by all the other birds of the garden, who danced with him until the first light came and the world awoke to the best news that it could ever receive. And as he danced with the other birds, Little Sparrow was sure he caught sight of his friend Owl, sitting on a nearby branch, winking at him . . .

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