The Pelican – Sacrifice and Gift

For my Lenten Discipline this year, I’ve decided I’ll be reading (and blogging) about Debbie Blue’s book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. 

Pelicans are huge. Their throat pouches are expandable and their beaks are longer than the beak of any other bird ever. If you have a strong stomach, be sure to watch the pelican in St. James Park, London, eat a pigeon – alive.

Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Shakespeare all use the image of the pelican: Jesus Christ our Pelican! O loving Pelican! oh Jesu Lord!

This probably came from the legendary belief that the mother pelican pierces her body to feed her own blood to her children to keep them alive. This image of sacrificial love is what led the poets to identify this bird with Christ. So the pelican turns up all over the place in ancient Christian iconography. That image lingers as a Christmas ornament for some Lutheran churches, and on the Louisiana state flag and seal.

In reality, the mother pelican doesn’t peck her breast to feed her young. What actually happens is the mother (and/or father) pelican flies far away, fishes and swallows her catch, and returns to the nest where she regurgitates the half-digested meal into her throat pouch, and the baby pelicans dive in head first to eat their fill. At some point, whether because they pass out from lack of oxygen or because they are sated, they fall out of the mother’s beak and lie inert on the floor of the nest. Then, as the mother covers them with her wings they come back to life.

Today, the symbol to the pelican as a sacrifice is much truer to the image of the pelican soaked in oil. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we saw photo after photo of pelicans drenched and suffocating in the oil. And that tragedy continues to this day with marshes and beaches still contaminated as we try to appease the great god of fuel. “Jesus didn’t die to sustain our noble ideals but rather to show where our noble ideals can lead: we will kill to maintain our order, to preserve what we think in right. We find some other that stands in the way of our manifest destiny and crucify it.”

Sacrifice is a prehistoric activity. The Hebrew Scripture keeps telling us that God does not want our sacrifice. Jesus pleads, “If only you learned what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.'”

“Clearly sacrifice moves people, but maybe God wants to move people in an entirely different way. God’s work in the world doesn’t work like a business – commerce or trade: give up this and you’ll get that – blood for love, the death of one thing so that something else can live. It’s a lot more creative than that. It’s not tit for tat. It’s grace upon grace upon mind-blowing grace.”

Maybe we need to quit using the rhetoric of sacrifice.

“We need to stop using so much oil. We need to give our children. We need to love the planet with a little more passion than we’ve shown. But maybe being attentive to the needs of the web of life that sounds you isn’t sacrifice. It isn’t putting something to death; it’s more like love – like learning to love with a little more passion, learning to give with a little more abandon.”

“People have been sacrificing a long time: we’ve sacrificed wetlands, badlands, innumerable species, trees, mountaintops, salmon streams – believing somehow that this is what is necessary to make our lives better, or to get what we want or what we think we need. But it isn’t working.”

Watch the pelicans flying along the beach just touching the tops of the waves. They are beauty and poetry in motion. O loving Pelican! O Jesu Lord! Maybe we humans aren’t really capable of destroying God’s world. We need to keep trying for the possibility of life lived not at the expense of other life.



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