Is there a pelican in your parish church? Have you ever wondered why this strange bird often appears above the tabernacle? I have encountered some striking examples recently and have discovered the following history.
Around the time of St Francis descriptions of the natural world became very popular. Animals, birds and even rocks were described and illustrated in ‘bestiaries’. Every part of Creation was thought to contain a meaning or a moral lesson and a long tradition of symbolic representation developed. Many of the creatures and their stories came from older sources including the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Many of the descriptions were drawn more from imagination than science.
The pelican is one of the creatures that appeared in Greek legends and medieval bestiaries. In Greek mythology the pelican was associated with violent death and rebirth – the parent bird killing their chicks and reviving them, after three days, with their own blood. Christian writers in the 13th century found a symbolic connection with the death and resurrection of Christ.
From observing the bird with its large, heavy, red-tipped beak resting on its breast, writers mistakenly described the pelican piercing its own side until blood flowed onto the dead chicks. So the pelican symbolizes Jesus’ self-sacrifice at Calvary. ‘Through his wounds you have been healed.’ (1 Peter 2:25) Jesus is the devoted parent reviving us with his life-giving blood.
Pope Francis encourages us in this Year of Mercy to experience God’s parental care as ‘a “visceral” love. It gushes forth from the depths, naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy.’ (Misericordiae Vultus 6) May we all know an immersion in this love during these days of Easter and be revived with the new life of His Resurrection. Alleluia!
Palm Sunday 2016