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Christ, Like a Pelican, Feeds His Children

From the beginning of the 4th century after Christ, when Christianity was permitted, the shape of churches, their decorations, and other elements, even their orientation, was dictated by one purpose: to express the depth of the mysteries celebrated there. Everything in the church building had to lead to a deeper understanding of the history of salvation with its culminating moment: when Jesus, the Son of God, came to the world to save it and show the human race the way to the Father. So then, our churches, the ancient ones and modern, are full of elements that refer to biblical stories, pictures and biblical symbols or even non-Christian symbols that existed in popular culture of ancient times. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the tabernacle and the letters of IHS and A and Ω, that are present on the brass doors of our church’s tabernacle. Now, I would like to remind you about another Eucharistic symbol – the image of the pelican. This image is not present in our church, but one can find it in many churches around the world.

The symbolism of the pelican in Christianity is based on the work entitled “Physiologist” by a second century author. It is the oldest and most widespread work on animals, which forms the basis of medieval animal symbolism.

Based on this story, St. Augustine – a famous 5th century bishop and Doctor of the Church – wrote: “Let us look at the Lord himself, and one can see that a pelican represents him. Let us not be silent about what is said or even read about this bird. It is said of these birds that by the blows of their beaks they kill their young, and that they then mourn for three days killed in their own nest. Finally, the mother wounds herself gravely and sheds her own blood on the little ones that come alive thanks to her. Maybe this is true, maybe not. But if this is true, think how it corresponds to him who has made us alive with his blood.”

Remigius of Auxerre (died 908 AD) explains that the pelican killing its chicks and reviving them on the third day with its blood is a symbol of Christ, who saved the human race by submitting himself to death as a man, but on the third day he rose again. In the Middle Ages, another version of this legend appeared. It says that pelicans feed their chicks with their own blood until the parents die of exhaustion. This is also a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death. Perhaps at the root of the legend lies the fact that the pelican, extracting the fish caught for the chicks from the bag located under the beak, makes vigorous movements. This causes the bag to stain an intense red color, which could be associated with blood. The presence of the pelican in the context of the crucifixion indicates both the saving blood of Christ shed for sinners and given for food.

In the Middle Ages, the image of the pelican spread in conjunction with Eucharistic piety. The pelican on the door of the tabernacle and on the monstrance points to the Eucharist. In the famous Eucharistic hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas “Adoro Te devote” or “Devotedly I Approach You”, we read as follows: “Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican; Bathe me, Jesus Lord, in what your bosom ran. Blood whereof a single drop has power to win. All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.”

May the beautiful symbol of the pelican’s sacrifice open our eyes and hearts to appreciate the real sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for all humanity.  This sacrifice is present during every single Eucharist we celebrate.

Fr. Mark Jurzyk