We typically think of the fish, the eagle, the phoenix, the lion, or the lamb as the symbols of the early church. However there is a little known bird that actually early played a prominent role. The symbol of the pelican can be found in early pieces of art dating back to the infancy of Christianity. It seems a strange choice to use a bird that seems so awkward in flight.
To understand this we must go far back to a legend about the pelican. Perhaps it had its birth with the earliest Greek, and Roman seafarers – but in truth its origin has been lost. All that in known is that it had become a wildly known tale shortly after the time of Christ. The legend says that in a time of great famine when no other food could be found, the mother pelican would strike its breast with its beak, opening a wound. With its own blood it would feed its hungry children that they might survive. The mother would prevent its children from starving by the sacrifice of its own blood, and open wound in it side to mark it sacrifice.
Certainly early Christians knew this legend. It seems so natural that those who spoke of Jesus’ saving blood – would see the pelican as a natural symbol. As early as the second century St. Basil references the pelicans as a symbol in the church. Within a few decades the pelican is referenced in half a dozen works – a sign that its common use as a symbol way growing.
The pelicans place in religion and culture only grew as the years went on. The pelican makes its way into Dante’s, Divine Comedy, John Skeltons work, and even the work of Shakespeare in his great Hamlet. It is a part of Catholic and protestant liturgical tradition as well. It can be seen on the altar frontal in many of the most beautiful churches of Europe, and right here in Greensboro can be found in the stain-glass of churches. Durham Cathedral held to sacrament in a Tabernacle fashioned from silver in the shape of a pelican.
Many of us would rather forget that for Thomas, the greatest doubter, the ultimate proof of Christ’s loving sacrifice was to put his hands in the wounds in Christ’s sides – to touch the holes where to nails had been driven – to find where the spear had pierced his breast. The stigmata and spear wound still marked the body of the risen Jesus in a very real way. In truth it was Christ’s wounds that provided that ultimate statement of his love, both to the disciples in the room, and finally to Thomas, who need so desperately to believe in something tangible. Thomas found his belief in Christ’s very deep, very real, very deadly wounds. It was from there that his life giving blood sprang forth, and salvation came to all the sons and daughters of God.
But this is a difficult Christ for us to confront. Not because it is beyond us to envision the sacrifice that Christ did indeed make for us – we certainly all have had to confront the horror and brutality of the crucifixion. But it is because what we must accept that it teaches about Christ, and what therefore as his body the church we must accept. It means that the risen Christ, our king, still bore the wounds of his sacrifice, and that they were the proof offered to the disciples.
We find it so appealing to see Christ far off, beautiful and magnificent, clothed in pure white, clean and bathed in a clear light from heaven, made in human and Godly perfection. But the Christ we find in the gospels is muddy, tired, long traveled and at times weary. He cries tears for the losses of others, suffers insults, is chased, attacked, has frustrations, and at times is emotionally overwhelmed by the weight of burdens he must carry.
Think on the Christ of Thomas. Think on the Christ that in his triumph chose to show the gathered disciples his wounds. Think on your saints. It is not the perfection of wealth, beauty, or the fact that they never made mistakes that made them the saint of your life. It was not that they were inhuman – invincible people that made them who they were. It is that they were willing to be weak for us. For a moment they let us see the most vulnerable parts of their soul, and all the things that made them so imperfect, all those wounds, that make them like the pelican. As Christ was willing to be made weak to the cross, so our saints have done likewise.
What do we mean when we say we are a holy people? We mean are a people who need no falsehood of perfection to be held. To love someone is to trust them with a vision of your most tender wounds. To withhold this is to withhold love. It is to withhold the blood that Christ freely spilled for you. In this place love should flow; but in can only flow if we let down our walls, and let love abound.
Perhaps Luther captured it best – better than I could ever hope too — he said to truly be a Christian, “Is to be a Christ for another, so that another can be a Christ for you.” We must open our wounds and find the perfect faith of trust – we must be willing to be weak in the sight of others bound in this love.
Jesus was a humble carpenter, who entered the capital of his kingdom, Jerusalem on the back of a mule, to meet his fate on the cross. It is not invincibility we desire. For it is the fact that our wounds have no power over us that is the gift of eternal life – the grave could not hold back the power of God. Our perfection is that of the creator – greater than all earthly desires. We have been given something more precious than all else on this earth, blood to seal a new covenant with our Lord, to become a child in the house of the Lord.
All glory be to Him who was, who is and who is to come.