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Ode to a Pelican

When I was a kid, I liked to watch for pelicans at the beach, because my grandfather would recite a poem about them.  “Oh what a bird is the pelican! His beak can hold more than his belly can!” (Same went for whenever the wind blew in the winter, at which time we were treated to

“The wind will blow, and we shall have snow,

and what will poor Robin do then?

He’ll fly to the barn, to keep himself warm,

and tuck his head under his wing; poor thing!”

Bert had a solid avian repertoire.)   Little did I know that this was in fact preparing me for ordained life.


This sermon is both entirely about, and not at all about, the Pennsylvania grand jury report about rampant child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.  I tried to read the report; I got about 85 pages into a 1350+ page document and had to stop.  It was overwhelming.

What hit me, aside from the abuse itself, was how closed off from the outside the entire church structure seemed–from even their own parishioners.  The Catholic Church has nurtured and built the faith of so many countless people, who faithfully attend, and sit in the pews each week, who say the rosary, and devoutly believe the best of their clergy and hierarchy–and the hierarchy portrayed in those internal documents seems entirely uncaring about how their actions and decisions will affect those people.

I hasten to add that this opaqueness can be found to a degree in all institutions–surely the Episcopal Church at times falls into this trap as well.  But it seems particularly and painfully on display in this instance.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

August 19, 2018

Ordinary Time, Proper 15, Year B

John 6:51-58

in the chapel at my seminary in New York City, was a mosaic floor.  Written in the lovely mosaics, as you walked down the aisle were the traditional virtues, inscribed in Latin.  Across the front of the chapel, by the altar rail, ran the three Christian virtues—faith, hope and love.  (Love was where they crossed).  And up in the chancel area, were various symbols set into the floor.  I would stare at them whenever I lost my focus saying the daily office—which of course never happened.

But behind the altar was an image that we almost never saw.  It was of a mother pelican feeding her chicks, there behind the altar, dead center.  

We don’t see pelicans much in churches anymore, but in the early years of Christianity, pelicans were a symbol of Christ—specifically mother pelicans.  People didn’t quite understand how pelicans worked, but they witnessed the birds bending down, and dumping food into the mouths of their babies, pressing her beak to her chest to make sure it was entirely empty, and so what they thought was happening, was that the mother bird was tearing bits of her own self to give to her children.  So, they thought, pelicans were like Jesus, who also fed his people with himself.  This was a very popular idea—Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about how Christ was the divine mother pelican.  Queen Elizabeth I called herself the mother pelican of the Church of England.  And there’s a pelican feeding her young on the front page of the first printing of the King James Bible.  

Of course, once we figured out what pelicans were actually doing—scooping up fish in their weird mouths, and vomiting into their children’s mouths….it seemed like a way worse symbol for Christ.  So it quickly fell out of favor.

Still, I am rather fond of the image of the pelican.  For one thing, it’s one of the classical female images we have of God in Christianity, so that’s cool.  

For another, it’s a symbol that emphasizes the self-sacrificial aspect of Jesus, which is important.  Other symbols talk of Jesus as the king or Jesus as the branch of David’s royal family line—this one is not powerful at all.  It’s entirely reversed.

In the gospel today, we’re still in John’s Never-Ending-Ode-to-Bread, as we have been for the past few weeks.  Remember, John’s Jesus wants to tell you the why of things, and not just the facts, so he’s been busy explaining at great length how he is like the Bread of Life, which is both like the bread that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness, and not like that—because Jesus’ bread lasts longer and does not turn into maggots after 24 hours.  (That’s true about manna—Google it.) 

Anyway, that manna part was the Opening of Jesus’ Great Bread Discourse, and now we’re into the rather peculiar part—which either is or is not about the Eucharist, depending on how you look at it.  In point of fact, at no point in John’s Gospel does Jesus actually eat a last supper with his friends, and present them with the bread and wine, and declare them to be his body and blood.  That doesn’t happen here; instead, what we will get at the end is Jesus eating a last meal, and then washing their feet.  But oddly enough, smack in the middle of the gospel, we have this discussion on Jesus offering himself as food and drink….which really sounds an awful lot like it belongs at the Last Supper.  

It is possible that the writer of John is doing that thing again where he is laying out the theology of something that he is assuming his audience already knows from other sources.  It is also possible that the writer of John is driving towards a point about the nature of Christ that in later times will become the language for what we believe about the Eucharist.

Regardless, the important part for us today in what Jesus is saying is the “my.”  “The bread that I will give is my flesh, and this for the life of the world.”  Jesus isn’t going to run to the store and purchase a sandwich tray; he won’t direct his disciples to take up a collection, even.  he will give of himself so that others may be fed.  

It may be hard to remember, but the story that immediately precedes the Great Bread Discourse is the feeding of the 5,000.  In that story, Jesus redistributes the five loaves and fishes of a little boy to an enormous crowd, and they are fed in a literal way.  Jesus finds a kid, uses his lunch to feed a lot of people.  But now, Jesus says, I’m going to feed you with myself.  With my very being and presence.  I will be bread for you.  It’s a pelican moment.

The words sound strange to us in the start of the 21st century; it’s not an image that we’re used to.  But Jesus is telling the crowd that he is so committed to them, to their happiness, their life abundant, that he will not only miraculously feed them, he will give all that he is, even physically, even his flesh and blood, to that end.  He will empty himself out for these people, so that they may be safe and loved. 

Every week, we celebrate the Eucharist, and I repeat the words we find in the other gospels, and declare that the bread and wine are, for us, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Because, for us,  in this holy moment, Christ comes near again, and says to us—this is how close I want to be to you.  This is how accessible I want to be for my people:  made present in the most common, boring bits of wafer.  I want to be here in the most mundane things, so that you can be empowered to go out and do the same,  So that you can go out, and live like this. 

This is the model Jesus sets for us—for us to go into the world, and give up whatever power and privilege we have in order to serve those around us.  We are called to use our power only to empower others who are kept to the side, to use our voices to amplify those who have been silenced. Our privilege is not for our own gain, our power is not to be used for ourselves or our profit—whatever we have, is for the benefit of the world.  Whatever loaves, whatever fish we have, is for everyone.  And all we have to do, this week in particular, is look around to see what horrors self-seeking abuse of power can create—in the grand jury report in Pennsylvania.  We are called to emulate Christ, and to give away what we have.  

There is such power in this sacrificial act—in the medieval mother pelican feeding her young; in Christ coming to us in a tasteless wafer.  How much more, then, are we empowered to replicate that humility, that service, to those we meet, when we can remember that this has been done for us?  When we can remember we have been formed by love like this? When we can remember that we have been enfolded by a God who willingly stoops to enter our muddy world because it is so loveable, how much then are we inspired to reflect that sort of love to this world’s creatures?  

Let’s find out.



About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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