Jesus the Salvific Pelican

Though seldom seen [it is worn only two days each year], the rose chasuble is traditionally associated with a sense of joy amidst a season of penance. On both Sundays of its appearance (Gaudete in Advent and Laetare in Lent), rose is worn to remind us that the season of preparation is coming to a close and the great feast is swiftly approaching.  In this essay, Christopher Ljundquist meditates upon the symbolism used in St. Luke’s rose chasuble.

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Jesus the Salvific Pelican: The Anatomy of a Living Symbol

By Christopher Ljungquist

Those of you who looked closely may have seen a golden waterfowl ornamenting the rose background of St. Luke’s rose chasuble, worn on Advent’s Gaudete Sunday and Lent’s Laetare Sunday. This bird, a mother pelican with a brood of chicks at her bosom, is one of the most ancient and venerable of Christian mystical-allegorical symbols, hearkening back to classical antiquity’s sacramentalized economy of the world’s natural order. The Great Fathers of the early Church, their minds formed and sensitized by the penetrating light of platonic metaphysics, quite literally saw the natural world, its sun, moon, stars, oceans, and all creatures within them found, as allegorical signifiers of their Creator and Lord, as well as “participants” (to use a philosophical-theological designation from Thomistic metaphysics) in the vast ocean of Being (God being, as Timothy McDermott would say, following St. Thomas, “the doing of all Being”). Thus, creatures “participate” in God in the great chain of Being, each fulfilling their end and reflecting their Creator, who is both intimately imminent and unutterably transcendent. In this wise, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that all creatures, to varying degrees, show “vestiges of the Trinity,” “fingerprints” of the divine artificer who fashioned them to reflect some aspect of His trinitarian Being.

The natural world (sauced with elements of pedagogic fantasy) under this noble conception, is thus a catechetical primer that provides living symbols pointing to mysteries divine: The bi-natured griffin (half eagle, half lion) shows Christ’s fierce leonine ferocity super-terrestrially soaring above the clouds; the peacock depicts the glorified nature of the resurrected body; the phoenix seraphically burns itself and rises from the ashes to new life. The animals in these ancient pagan and early Christian bestiaries are catechetical wonders that show nature’s essentially signifying function. These allegorical animals were not “static” representations (as photography renders entities “frozen” in space and time), but rather were dynamic narratives that held, within their constitutive parts, “stories” meant for religious or philosophical instruction.   The Pie Pelicane, the Heavenly Pelican, becomes, then, a “sacramentalized” depiction of a natural wonder: a mother pelican plucking her chest, lacerating her flesh to feed her chicks, as the Incarnate Word made his flesh “meat indeed,” and his blood “drink indeed” (John 6:55). The Eucharistic analogy suggests itself.

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Let us look at the Pelicane’s portrayal in the text of the Physiologus, a second century Alexandrine bestiary that “Christianizes” the pagan legend of this wonderful bird: “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 revivified 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 (Is 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.” Other versions have the mother pelican kissing her chicks to death, and then revivifying them with her blood.

The Pie Pelicane has the added benefit of being a decidedly maternal representation, and thus makes it an allegory very proximate to the everyday human condition: God’s first embrace of a person is usually mediated by the love of a mother, His wondrous love felt through her warmth and care.

Aside from the many representations in the plastic arts, the Pie Pelicane makes a rather dramatic appearance in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro Te Devote, one of the Angelic Doctor’s most glorious hymns. The penultimate stanza of that eucharistic song lauds Christ with the appellation of “heavenly pelican”: Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine, me immundum munda tuo sanguine; cuius una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere (“O Good and Pious Pelican, Jesus my Lord! Though I am unclean, cleanse me in Thy blood; Of which a single drop for sinners spilt, Is ransom for a world’s entire guilt.”).

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In the tradition of the English Church, before and after the Henrician Reformation, the Pie Pelicane has been continually used, even extending beyond its Eucharistic reference. The first edition of the King James Bible depicted the “pelican in her piety” on the front cover, symbolizing the feeding of the people of God with the nourishment of Holy Writ. This is indeed a most edifying symbol, one that the Church Universal would do well to preserve and cherish.

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The pious pelican is engraved on the doors of of the Basilica at the Shrine to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.