An image of a mother pelican with her chicks is carved into the capital on top of a pillar at the Cenacle, the upper room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem where tradition holds that Jesus shared the Last Supper with his apostles and instituted the Eucharist.
It is the only artwork in the entire room, and it is singularly appropriate because it is a symbol for Jesus and the Eucharist. Mother pelicans lay their eggs in a nest, and after the chicks hatch, the mothers leave the nest to hunt for food, return and feed the chicks. Many birds feed their young with worms. Pelicans usually live near the water, and their prey tend to be small fish, frog tadpoles, crayfish or salamanders.
In times of drought the marshes and streams might dry up, or something might cause the fish in the lake to die, and the mother pelican is unable to find food. Her chicks are delicate, need to be fed daily, and without food are quickly in danger of starvation and death. Faced with this crisis, the mother pelican uses its beak to poke holes in its breast, which causes blood to come out, and the chicks are nourished with their mother’s blood. The mother dies and the chicks survive.
Christians see parallels between the mother pelican and her chicks and Jesus and his followers. The mother pelican represents Jesus, the chicks represent us. The chicks dwell in the safety of the nest, believers dwell in the safety of the Church. The mother is the head of the nest, and Jesus is the head of the Church (Eph 1:22). The mother has an intense concern for her chicks and it goes against her nature to allow any of them to perish, and Jesus has a great love for us and wants none of us to perish.
When food is in short supply, the pelican pierces its breast with its sharp, pointed beak, and the side of Jesus was pierced by a sharp, pointed lance (Jn 19:34a). Blood flows from the pelican’s breast, and blood flowed from Jesus’ side (Jn 19:34b). The mother’s blood is drink for her chicks, and the blood of Jesus is “true drink” (Jn 6:55b). The mother gives her life that her chicks might live, and Jesus laid down his life that we might live (Jn 15:13). The mother’s blood saves the lives of the chicks, and the blood of Jesus is salvation and eternal life (Jn 6:54) for those who receive it. Because of these striking similarities, the mother pelican and her chicks have come to represent the Eucharist, as well as redemption and salvation.
A depiction of a mother pelican and her chicks frequently is on display in places associated with the Eucharist: the doors of the tabernacle; the front of the altar; a hanging in front of the lectern or ambo; a stained glass window in the sanctuary area; the decorative design on a chalice, chasuble or cope; or on the ends of pews.
Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. Read more of his writing at www.CatholicHotdish.com.BACK TO LIST