Life-rendering PelicanPosted: February 7, 2016
I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles.
I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.
I came across the legend of the life-rendering pelican earlier this week, and it has continued to scroll through my mind.
Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.
The Life-rendering Pelican
One of the oldest symbols in the Christian tradition is that of the pelican feeding her young. She is not as well known in Christianity today, but she still exists in places. Many cathedrals use this imagery in statues, stained windows, and at the altar. The pelican’s pose is almost always the same: she stands upright with her wings outstretched and her beak pointed down into her chest, her children flocking around her, looking up at her expectantly.
The legend actually precedes Christianity. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least thirty million years to the remains of a beak similar to that of the modern species, found in France.
The legend of the pelican had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appeared in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.
“The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revived and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Isaiah 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”
The legend became popular in Christian art and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, referred to by Laertes in Hamlet: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms; and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.” (Act IV, Scene 5, Line 46)
I pulled out my college Shakespeare book—I took two semesters of Shakespeare. The passage was highlighted with a green magic marker, but there were no notes in the margin, meaning my professor did not expound on the meaning and implications of the life-rendering pelican. Surprising, because Dr. Mariah Butler took every opportunity to relate literature to the Bible or Christianity.
The legend has stayed with me all week. It is an allegorical depiction of Christ taking his own blood and securing eternal redemption. It shows sacrificial love.
It’s also an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us.
Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.