The Pelican: Symbol of the Passion of Christ

March 3, 2008


I love it when art and music converge to make history and the Bible more vivid. Such is the case that starts in Florence at the Galleria dell’Accademia in the Byzantine room just down the hall from Michaelangelo’s massive “David.” In this room hangs Pacino di Bonaguida’s “Tree of Life,” dating back to about 1310. It shows Christ’s Crucifixion on a tree with twelve branches. The painting depicts the writing of St. Bonaventure’s Lignum Vitae (1260) in which he discusses the origin, the passion and the glorification of Christ. He hangs a medallion for each of Bonaventure’s 48 headings along the branches and adds a few additional biblical events. I found Lauren Simpson’s essay helpful in understanding the details of the Tree of Life.

You cannot escape the centrality of Christ in the painting. This is no accident. Medieval Christian writers saw the New Testament as a fulfillment of the Old Testament Law and therefore linked the Old Testament anticipation of Messiah with the New Testament fulfillment in the person of Christ. Indeed, our modern conservative hermeneutics interprets much of the Old Testament as “types” that prefigure Christ, realizing that the writers were inspired by God to write what made perfect sense to the readers at the time, but also wrote beyond themselves to the fulfilled meaning in Christ. And so, in the painting, Christ spans the time continuum from creation to glorification with His overarching message of redemption in his shed blood on the cross and his resurrection. All other events in history derive their meaning from this central event and lead to the culmination of all things in Him for eternity.

A peculiar element rests at the top of the painting, namely a pelican. Prior to last month’s visit to Florence, I had never heard of the symbolic significance of a pelican. It goes something like this.

The symbolism of the mother pelican feeding her little baby pelicans is rooted in an ancient legend which preceded Christianity. The legend was that in time of famine, the mother pelican wounded herself, striking her breast with the beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. Another version of the legend was that the mother fed her dying young with her blood to revive them from death, but in turn lost her own life. — Fr. William P. Saunders in a column from the Arlington Catholic Herald (2003).

Our church choir director, J. Marty Cope, enlightened me concerning a festive anthem written by Gerald Finzi, “Lo, the full, final, Sacrifice.” He exlained that the words come from Richard Crashaw’s translations of the Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te and Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The last stanza references the pelican and the blood:

O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man.

All this way bend thy benign flood
To’a bleeding Heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my worlds of sins from me.
Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face.

Additional text and comments about the pelican are contained in another interesting blog post.


One of the most difficult tasks I can imagine is to extend love, sacrificial love, to someone who has hurt you deeply. This is even more difficult to imagine if the one suffering did not do anything wrong in the first place. When I think of the bleeding Christ, I am moved to fall down before Him in thanksgiving and worship. And during this time of year, my thoughts gravitate toward the Passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection, carving a path for me to follow in His time. When I think on this history, this art, this music and this Jesus, then the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.


Freedom in the Midst of Bondage

March 2, 2008

mamertine-marty.jpgFrom this prison in Rome, Paul proclaimed a freedom of spirit that was unfettered. By contrast, we who are free as birds, often lead lives of confinement and restriction. What was Paul’s secret? He never whined about his condition, even under the reign of Nero, not even when facing death. He never played the “victim.” The last letter he wrote (2 Timothy) originated in this Mamertine Prison and is full of encouragement and wisdom from an old man who had suffered a lot. (my friend J. Marty is 6’6” tall)

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. (2 Timothy 2:8-12)

Paul was not a mere idealist. He felt real discomfort, like the cold and damp cell. No wonder he asked Timothy to bring his cloak to him.

Do your best to come to me soon . . . When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:9, 13)

He was a “slave to Christ” . The things he held tightly, we often push to the side of our plates. He made central those things that we often make peripheral. And the values that we tend to build our lives around, he counted but rubbish. Peter, who also spent time in this Mamertine Prison explained it this way:

They (false prophets and teachers) promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him (2 Peter 2:9)

How do we imprison ourselves? Ironically, many of the things we seek to master lay hold of us and become our master. Take, for example, financial bondage. Some people buy things beyond their means become slaves their creditors. Others make a lot of money but become enslaved to the very process that produces the money. And it’s never enough. Still others live in bondage to their image, “looking good” above all else, seemingly imperturbable yet highly vulnerable to trends and evaluations of others. Still others live in bondage to their need for accomplishments, valuing themselves for what they do rather than who they are or whom they serve. And the big one — the bondage of our fears. We cling to that which is familiar, fearing change, no matter how it might hold us back.
Now comes the hard part: What has mastered me? What am I in bondage to? What changes do I need to make that would result in more true freedom of spirit? Do those things I cling to set me free or hold me in bondage?
I’m encouraged by the exhortation that Paul sent to the Ephesian Christians during his first prison term in Rome, probably in a rented house:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (Ephesians 4:1)


My wife, who is 5′ 4″ and has a little more head room than J. Marty, was touched in her heart at the thought of Paul writing his letter to Timothy on this, the only ledge in the cell.