I like Pelicans. There are either several difficult to define reasons for this or maybe no particular reason at all. To be honest I am not exactly sure where the predilection originated, but I’ve read several things that give me a deeper appreciation for the animal due to my religious beliefs. The pelican has Christological significance and was identified in the second century as a metaphor for the concept of sacrificial remediation. Below is an excerpt from a another website regarding the appearance of the pelican in a book called the Physiologus.
- Brown Pelican from National Geographic
The legend of the pelican is an ancient one and had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appears in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.
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.
I think what’s most pertinent about this metaphor is the fact that the adult pelican strikes and kills the juvenile birds after they try to elicit life sustaining necessities. The act of striking the parent (Christ) for nourishment is equitable to the essential admission, “I need you. I can’t survive without you”. But the result is not what is typically expected. The progenitor strikes and kills the progeny in response. The parent pelican then pierces its’ breast, voluntarily drawing its’ own blood which is used to rejuvenate the young.
Aspects of the symbolic depth of this story can be lost on some of us attempting to understand the parallel significance to the Christian life. There is the obvious relationship between the voluntary piercing of the pelican’s side for the life of the young and the sacrificial activity of Jesus Christ on the cross. But does the process of deification in Christ require the death of the penitent? The difficult answer to that question is yes. “Unless a kernel of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it brings for much fruit.” John 12:24. True penitence lies in the realization that there is no good in us except that which is from God, and the perfection of the Christian life consists in recognizing that good, then doing everything we can to grow that goodness and let it consume us, even at the cost of loosing what we may think identifies or defines us. As St. John the Baptist so humbly said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:30. To his disciples, St. John’s statement concerned the status of two religious authorities of the time, however the saint’s words I believe have a more profound meaning. St. John recognized the fact that for the role of the messiah to be fulfilled in an believer’s life, the individual must become less and less “individual”.
As an “individual” I think I am perpetually searching for my idea of self. I have an concept of who I am supposed to be. At points of my life I have experienced things that I think define the conscious and subconscious characteristics of that person. Even though those events and experiences form the essential foundation of who I think I am; the fulfillment of remediation, and my own perfection lies in trusting God to destroy that foundation and rebuild it in the one true perfect theathropic mold. We must value what Christ offers more than our own lives, and what Christ offers is what we were intended to be.
As someone who constantly looks for methods of expressing himself (typically without much competence or satisfaction), or ways of defining what is most important, I am of the opinion that the pelican and the associated legend is a complete and succinct allegorical representation for the most fundamental and exigent concept in the relationship between God and man.