One of the delights of moving to Manitoba was the discovery that pelicans are annual summer residents on the drainage pond behind our house. Pelicans have long been one of my favorite birds, even before I learned of their Christological significance some years back. So it was with great joy, on the day we took possession of our house five years ago, that I discovered a flock of American white pelicans sitting on the bank of the pond just beyond our backyard. This year their timing was impeccable. As we drove home from Easter worship, we caught a glimpse of a large flock of pelicans circling over the town. The arrival of these “dying-and-rising” birds perfectly coincided with the high festival of our dying and rising Lord!
I’m not the only one who has a thing for pelicans. Jason Byassee refers to them frequently in his book Discerning the Body: Searching for Jesus in the World. If you’re not familiar with the place of pelicans in the Christian tradition, you’ll want to read this excerpt from Byassee’s book:
“Augustine’s heard about pelicans. They don’t live in his part of the world, but he knows some myths about them. He has heard that a mother pelican will kill her young in the nest, then wound herself and pour her blood on the young, which then revive. The christological image is clear in the pouring out of life-giving blood. Christ has a motherly love for her church. Even the mother pelican’s wounding of her young makes biblical sense, for as Deuteronomy declares, “I will kill and I will give life, I will strike and I will heal.” Saul had to be wounded before he could be converted. Few of us are without a significant wound from which we do ministry, as Henri Nouwen taught us all. Augustine is aware that the myth of the pelican may be just that, a myth, but it almost doesn’t matter: “This report may be true or false, but if it is true, observe how apt a symbol it is of him who gave us life by his own blood.”
Allegory gives no new information. You cannot find anything allegorically in Scripture that is not also present in a clear literal way elsewhere (those who allegorize to find what they want are called Gnostics). The point is to see what you already know illumined in a new way, to take fresh delight in knowledge you already have. Allegory is a preacher’s art, if you will. It is for preachers who have seen their parishioners drop off to sleep too many times, who need to give them something more than the basic “old, old story.” So they tell that old story in a new way—with pelicans. Once it is told in that new way, the pelican changes. We come to see pelicans themselves as signs of Christ. 1
- Jason Byassee, Discerning the Body: Searching for Jesus in the World (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), loc. 5111. Kindle. ↩