© 2022 Evan D. Garner
My favorite Christological image has long been that of the pelican. Partly, that is because I grew up on the coast, where the sight of a Brown Pelican, while not unusual, is always special. But it’s also because of the nature of the connection between Jesus and that particular water bird—because of the ways that a pelican reminds us of who Jesus is and how Jesus saves us.
As early as the second century, Christians used the pelican to express the nurturing, loving care of Christ. You may have seen the icon of a pelican feeding its young in an altar frontal or a stained-glass window or another devotional image and wondered whether someone had mistakenly substituted the pelican for a dove, but the nesting sea bird offers an even more vivid reminder of Christ than the dove we more often see.
Although based on a misunderstanding of the bird’s behavior, mother pelicans were thought to feed their young by piercing their own breast with their long, sharp bills and nourishing their young with their own blood in a powerful gesture of maternal sacrifice. Actually, mother pelicans tuck their head down to their side, jerking it up and down, in order to regurgitate the fish that they have swallowed and partially digested so that their chicks can receive it as food, but why would we let advancements in ornithology stand in the way of a good analogy for Christ?
The ancient image of a pelican is especially important for contemporary conversations about Christianity. Feminist theologians have long wondered whether Christianity can be redeemed from its inherently violent and masculine context—an understanding of the faith that is, for most of us, inextricably linked to the execution of Jesus. If the central moment in our religious history is the death of our savior—a moment and act around which almost all Christian language about salvation turns—can our faith be built upon something besides violence? Given our two-thousand-year love affair with patriarchy and misogyny, one could rightly ask whether a religion that, at its core, celebrates an act of violence as the means by which salvation comes to the world could ever be freed from that dangerous, hypermasculine past. Or, to say it practically, we might ask how we, as parents and grandparents, could ever teach our children about God’s love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, without needing to glorify a gruesome execution in order to do it.
Janet Martin Soskice, a Roman Catholic theologian who specializes in the role of women in the church, thinks we can, but we need the pelican to help us. Although some of her feminist colleagues think that Christianity cannot be separated from its violent imagery, Soskice believes that we can “turn” those images (her language) without rejecting them completely. For her, the cross, which remains essential to the liberating, loving, life-giving message of the gospel, can be turned into a symbol of nourishment when we think of it not only as a place of violent death but also as the place from which God feeds her children.
Another common eucharistic image from the ancient world helps us make that connection. Perhaps you have seen the icon that depicts a stream of blood and water, flowing from the pierced side of Jesus, who hangs lifeless on the cross, being collected into a communion chalice, which presumably is then given to the church in Holy Communion. Guided by that image of Jesus’ sacrifice, when we look upon the cross, we encounter not only the one who was killed and raised on our behalf but also upon the one who, in the Eucharist, feeds us with the life-giving nourishment that flows from his breast. Those ancient Christians who chose the pelican as an image of how God saves us in Jesus Christ recognized that the sacrifice of the cross is a self-giving that nurtures God’s people in the same way that a mother feeds her child. And that’s a very different way of looking at what Jesus did for us on the cross.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jesus declares. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Even Jesus himself, when choosing an image to represent his saving love for the people of Jerusalem, envisioned a mother hen, gathering her baby chicks under the shadow of her wings in order to protect them.
In a world in which salvation usually comes adorned with armor plates and armed with supernatural powers or specialized weapons, Jesus asks us to consider his salvation as the one that comes to guard us and protect us and shelter us the way that a mother hen might collect her brood if a fox were lurking nearby.
Although it might sound surprising, given what we are led to believe about them in the gospel, the Pharisees came to Jesus and warned him that Herod was seeking to kill him. “You tell that fox that I have holy work to do and that that work is too important to let him get in the way,” Jesus said. “But I will be travelling today, tomorrow, and the day after because I must get to Jerusalem, where God’s prophets are always killed.”
Jesus wasn’t worried about Herod, who had authority up north in Galilee, because he knew that the climax of a prophet’s ministry must always take place in the seat of power, down south, in Jerusalem. Jesus left Herod’s region not to escape the fox’s threats but to give himself over to the fate that awaited him in the capital city. And, in so doing, he gave himself up for the sake of those he wanted to protect, even though he knew that some would not welcome a savior who came to protect them like that.
The problem with the Christological image of a hen or even that of a pelican is that a bird doesn’t stand much of a chance in the face of those who would throw stones at God’s anointed. If you asked us which savior we’d rather stand behind, how many of us would pick a chicken instead of an eagle, a pelican instead of a fighter jet? But the saving love God brings to the world in Jesus Christ isn’t found in political or military triumph. It is the love that saves us through surrender, that protects us through vulnerability, that nourishes us through sacrifice.
Believing in a God who rescues us like that costs us something in this world. It costs us to give up our hopes and expectations of physical, emotional, and economic security. It costs us to follow that kind of Jesus into those places where he confronts those with authority and is rejected by them. If Jerusalem is the city where an ancient Jewish prophet must go to die, where would we expect Jesus to confront the powers of this world today? Where are we going to be called to stand with Jesus?
Who will reject as blasphemous Jesus’ message of vulnerable protection and sacrificial nourishment as our greatest hope and, thus, the pattern God calls all of us to live by? Who will be the first to pick up a stone and throw it at those who come in Jesus’ name when that is the way that they talk about salvation? Jesus promises us that we will not see him until we are willing to say that he is the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord—that his way of gentle sacrifice is God’s way of saving the world. May we be gathered under the shelter of Christ’s wings and nourished by the blood that flows from Christ’s breast until we know the saving love that God has for all of God’s children.