The Pelican in Her Piety - Jim Holmes

Dear Friends, 

  As you know, I grew up in Louisiana, where the state bird is the brown pelican and the state flag has at its center a depiction of the medieval symbol called the "pelican in her piety." It shows the pelican plucking her own breast to feed her starving young with her blood.  From very early in the life of the Church, it has been used as a symbol of the self-sacrificing love of Christ on the Cross—and also of the Eucharist, where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.

The Louisiana State Flag

The Louisiana State Flag

  The pelican in her piety has long been an important symbol at Emmanuel Church too. It's on the official seal of the parish, and for many decades the weekly newsletter which was mailed to parishioners was called "The Pelican." It contained news and announcements, and only ceased publication in 2005, when we moved to our current e-news format. The pelican is seen in the splendidly worked green frontal which is on the high altar now as well as in a lovely wood carving in the priests' vesting room. She is found on the head of our verger's wand, and there is even a small depiction of it in the stained glass in the rector's study. There may be other instances at Emmanuel which I have not yet discovered.

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

The green frontal on Emmanuel’s high altar

  The pelican in her piety is a lovely myth, though ornithologists who have studied pelicans tell us that the birds do not really behave this way at all. It may look like they are piercing their breasts when, in fact, they are reaching into their pouches for food.

  But the myth, like all good myths, leads us to truth. Self-giving and self-sacrifice are pre-eminent Christian virtues. Jesus tells us:  "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)  Most of us are not called to lay down our lives, but we are called to put others first, to offer our lives to Christ's service. In the words of the Geoffrey A.S. Kennedy's stalwart hymn: 

"To give and give, and give again, 

What God hath given thee; 

To spend thyself nor count the cost; 

To serve right gloriously 

The God who gave all worlds that are, 

And all that are to be."

-Jim Holmes