Pelican in her Piety

This is an image that I discovered for the first time while touring Rome a few years ago. Maybe you have seen it in stained glass? Here is a less artsy rendition:

Pelican Sketch

I have adopted it more or less as a theme for this blog and as a generic thumbnail filler. As I toured the Vatican museum and was blown away by the sheer beauty of  St. Peter’s Basilica searching for the set pieces from the movie Hudson Hawk, I noticed an image. It didn’t really come to the front of my mind until we were in Florence visiting the statue of David and again noticing the image on medieval paintings all around.

The image was simply of a pelican seemingly tearing open her own chest and again seemingly feeding her blood to her children.  I didn’t completely understand the image in history but I immediately recognized the reference. As soon as I got home I researched the image trying to find out if indeed Pelicans did do this. In Latin it was called vulning meaning to wound. Apparently it is more myth than reality but the symbol did find a hold in church history. The idea comes from a Pelican when it stands to feed it looks like it is pressing down on its chest attempting to penetrate the cavity, presumably to feed the young its blood.

The earliest I could find the image was in the 1300’s. This myth grew that the Pelicans often thought of as a rough bird would thrash the young and even kill them, and then in her piety would revive them with her own blood. It has been said that for a time in the catholic church this symbol superseded even that of the lion and the lamb for Christ. It probably didn’t hold up in history because it was more superstition than fact but the idea is fascinating.

The picture immediately arrests doesn’t it? The idea of a parent sacrificing themselves for their children is very palatable though wrenching. It is quite the contrast to our modern-day that would happily sacrifice the unborn for our own convenience. A better vision is the idea of a God sacrificing for his own creation, it is truly moving. This is the Christina message we want to get across to the world. God looks down and see his creation, his children in turmoil, starving for true sustenance, completely exposed to the elements and at its mercy, hoping that someone somewhere will feed and take of them. And this is what he has done.

He poured out his very life blood for the world so they might enter into a relationship with their maker. To find that true sustenance that true comfort and that true rest. God graciously gives of himself literally and figuratively for us. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said “I am the bread of life!”, “All who thirst come to me!” and the furthermore why he could say “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

If God is the true food and true drink then partaking in any other, no matter how Pius or how many other roads might be desirable, will always lead us astray. Jesus can claim the exclusive way because he has exclusive rights. Just as a parent has the responsibility to care and raise their own, God does this as well. God did not abdicate his responsibility to us when he could have, after we rejected his authority and rule. We sought to be like him rather than be led by him.

When and if we see the Pelican in her piety we immediately know what it is communicating. Just as the father in the prodigal son story waits making all the provision for us, but waits for us to come around and take part in his glory, to take part in his family even though it was we who went astray. He shed his blood so that the restoration could be made possible. He waits, he gives, he provides, he care, and he is calling. The picture of the Pelican’s piety may have fallen out of vogue but the idea of the sacrifice of God himself will never.

We know that it is speaking about God loving the world. It is speaking about a God who desires reconciliation, a God who isn’t sussed about our feelings of worthlessness and imperfection. A God who doesn’t let our scars and wounds and hurts and past damage us beyond repair.

If your mirror rejects you, he smashes your mirror. If you heart betrays you, he is nonplussed. If your virtue condemns you he overcomes you feelings. If your past haunts you he is the ghost buster you need. He doesn’t sweat your need for his blood. He knows you need it and happily provided it. He loves you. He endured the cross despising the shame so that you wouldn’t have to.

For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:20)

If that kind of sacrifice doesn’t move you, then I don’t know what will, this image is supposed to help, but there is still time to rethink that position. Come let us return to the Lord. He feeds us and clothes us and cares, he loves us.

give thanks


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