And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.'
'What, wouldst thou have me turn pelican, and feed thee out of my own vitals?'
Words from Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act IV Scene V), and William Congreve's Love for Love (Act II Scene I) respectively.
Yesterday, walking through a snowy woodland, I spent five or ten chilly minutes watching a treecreeper ascend a tree-trunk, hopping jerkily upwards as it searched for insects in the bark.
It occurred to me that Christian symbolism finds a place for many birds (although the treecreeper is not among them). The most obvious is the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. There's the eagle, soaring upwards, symbolising the Resurrection and Ascension and also the new life given to the faithful in Baptism. The turtle dove, which is said to mate for life, symbolises fidelity. The peacock, a bird whose flesh was believed not to decay after death, symbolises immortality. The robin with its red breast symbolises the Passion.
And then there's the pelican. A pre-Christian legend recounts the story of a pelican feeding its young in time of famine with its own blood, plucked from its breast. The story was probably based on a misunderstanding of the way a pelican presses her large beak back against her breast to release the food stored there, but the idea gained currency and was adopted as a symbol of Christ at a very early date. During mediaeval times it became a particularly popular image. Frequently the pelican's beak is sharp and pointed, quite unlike the genuine article.
At All Saints', a gold pelican with chicks (known as a 'pelican in her piety') is carved centrally above the Last Supper and below the gold cross on the High Altar reredos. Another is depicted in stained glass in the South Porch. They represent the Eucharist, as the blood of Christ is given to give spiritual life to the faithful - particularly appropriate to recall, as we'll come to commemorate the Last Supper tomorrow. They also represent the self-giving of Jesus on Good Friday, as Jesus poured out his life for the redemption of the world.
The giving of his blood by Jesus for us is a graphic image, and one which has repulsed people over the centuries. A clearer understanding of the Old Testament background may be helpful in understanding its meaning. In the books of 2 Samuel (23.13f) and 1 Chronicles (11.14f), an incident is recounted in which three courageous chiefs joined David at the Cave of Adullam, a wilderness stronghold. Philistines were camping not far away, and had a garrison at Bethlehem, David's home city. David expressed a longing for a drink of water from the well by the gate of Bethlehem. The three chiefs, having heard his words, broke through enemy ranks and returned with the water. David refused to drink it but instead offered it to God, saying 'Can I drink the blood of these men who went at risk of their lives?' The offer by Jesus of the Water of Life is at the price of his own life; 'drinking his blood' in those graphic words of David.
O loving Pelican! O Jesu, Lord!
Unclean am I, but cleanse me in Thy Blood
Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Can purge the entire world from all its guilt.