The Pelican in her Piety


In the name of Christ our protector, and our companion.  Amen.

In recent years, the image of the “Pelican in her Piety” has been meaningful to me in my practices of prayer and meditation.  You may have seen it before.  It shows a mother pelican, with her wings spread protecting her chicks, and her head down.  The image first caught my attention when I was visiting a cathedral and I saw it among the symbols depicted on the baptismal font.  It caught my attention, because I recognized the image from the state flag of Louisiana, where I’m from.

So I started digging into it.  If you look closely at one of these images, you’ll see a small drop of blood in the center of the pelican’s chest.  Centuries ago, observers saw this blood from mother pelicans feeding their young and mistakenly came to believe that she had punctured her own chest with her beak and was feeding her young with her own blood.  It didn’t take long for religious observers to hear about this and apply Christ-like, Eucharistic meaning to the practice.  As Jesus’ blood was spilled for the lives of Christ’s followers, so, too, does this mother spill her own blood for the lives of her young.  As we are nourished in the Holy Eucharist by Christ’s body and blood, the mother nourishes her young with her own blood from her own body.

The problem is, the observers were mistaken.  Pelicans don’t actually self-mutilate to feed their young.  In fact, what happens, is that mother pelicans, like many other birds, macerate the fish that they eat before giving it to their young.  When she drops her head to feed her chicks the partially digested food, the bloody fish fall from her beak.  It can sometimes stain her breast, leaving the observer with the incorrect impression that she, herself, is bleeding.

But, of course, never ones to let the facts stand in the way of a good Christological symbol, the image of the Pelican in her Piety has endured in the church through the ages.  And part of its staying power is that it speaks to a kind of image that tends to hold a lot of traction among Christians – the idea of God caring for us as children; the infantilization of the faithful against the unfathomable wisdom of the parent-creator.

And these images are not without scriptural bases.  We certainly remember the idea shared in reports of the teachings of Jesus.  Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke report that Jesus said, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”

These images came to me this week because the same kind of image was shared in the reading from Isaiah – an image of us, the people of God as literal “children of God”.  The prophecy attributed to Isaiah says, “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,

all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her -- that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight

from her glorious bosom.  For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her kneesAs a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…”

It’s a powerful image – an image of being cared for, in our reliance; of being protected in our vulnerability.  The world can feel so big, and its problems so complex.  How could we ever be ready to meet its challenges?  How could we ever be enough?

While it’s true that the teachings of Jesus do employ the image of the “mother hen gathering her brood”, it’s also true that Jesus does assert, again and again, that we are enough.  We are worthy of this calling.  Empowered by the life of Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit, we have and are everything we need to share the ministry of Christ with the world.

In the Gospel lesson that we heard today, Jesus speaks of his followers not as vulnerable, reliant baby birds, but as colleagues in ministry – as extensions of himself.  The reading began, “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go…”.  They went as extensions of his ministry – as extensions of his intentions.

It can be deeply meaningful to be cared for and to be protected.  It can nurture us.  But a life in Christ is not fulfilled just in being cared for and protected.  Christians are never mere consumers of the gifts of Christ.  We receive the gifts of ministry with Christ, not only for our own nourishment, but to lead us into nourishing others.

He himself intended to go.  As the body of Christ living in the world, we are appointed by Christ to go on ahead into the world – to proclaim the message and to be living examples of the Good News of God in Christ.  We are created so that we can create.  We are nourished so that we can nourish.  We are healed so that we can heal, and we are loved so that we can love.

Our calling isn’t to consume, but to share – to spread the ministry of Christ everywhere that he himself intended to go.

We have been loved into that mission, and being so loved, we are enough.  We are worthy, and we are ready.  Together, let’s go.  Amen.