Evensong 13th September 2020
The Soft Self Wounding Pelican
Once in my life I have found myself in an outdoor procession following the Blessed Sacrament in a glorious monstrance. It was in 2005, and it took me by surprise. York Minster Choir had just sung Mass in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Haarlem in the Netherlands. It was Corpus Christi Sunday, and, for only the second time since the Reformation, they were going outside. There’s a picture of me texting my much more Anglo Catholic colleague back in York, saying: You’ll never guess what I’m doing”.
It was a scene which many in the medieval church would have recognised and relished. The feast of Corpus Christi was a thirteenth century creation, formally instituted after much lobbying in 1264. The Pope’s genius was to get St Thomas Aquinas to write the liturgy for the new festival, and he composed some fabulous hymns about Communion and the adoration of the sacrament. We still use them: ‘Thee we adore O hidden Saviour thee’; ‘Of the glorious body telling’.
And later poets, like Richard Crashaw, composed poems based on the hymns, two of which are used in the anthem by Gerald Finzi: Lo the full final sacrifice which we have heard this evening. I knew from Philip Moore and Francis Jackson at York that composers make much of singable words, and Finzi does move the text Around to make it work musically. I couldn’t therefore quite work out why there was a Pelican in it – it’s not a very musical word to set. Crashaw owes the pelican reference to Aquinas’s hymns, and Aquinas owes it to the thought of his age. The pelican was a well-known symbol of the Eucharist.
Finding out why became a personal quest for me. At York Minster the stall at the High Altar for the Precentor, which I used to occupy, has the pelican embroidered in it. At Beverley Minster the Misericord on which I sat daily has a Pelican carved on the underside. In depth research – Google – revealed much. The brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana, and is the symbol of the Irish Blood Transfusion service, which for many years was to be found at Pelican House, Dublin.
More seriously the pelican was thought to care for its young so much that, in times of drought it would wound itself and feed its young with its own blood. This symbol of sacrificial care was used before Christian times, but was seized upon by the church as a way of showing the love of God for his children, and, as the doctrine of Holy Communion was developed, as a way of reflecting on how Christ feeds us with his own blood in Holy Communion. Many people meditated on this, and pelicans came to be used in medieval church imagery. Look for a bird pecking its own neck and feeding its young – the ‘vulning’ pelican. There are everywhere, when you start to search, not least as the symbols of the two Corpus Christi Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge.
In the medieval church the festival of Corpus Christi was assisted by the introduction of new technology: communion wafers which would not degrade and could be used for days as objects of devotion and carried about in processions – which themselves got more and more elaborate. I began by saying that such a procession was unaccustomed for me. The physical adoration of consecrated bread and wine has not been a formative part of my spiritual development. But reflection on the eucharist has been, and continues to be so. What is easy to recognise in the eucharistic devotion of Aquinas and the Latin authors from whom he drew, is that the Eucharist, the sacrament, is not the end, not the fulfilment of all things. It points to those things. To receive the sacrament, and to reflect upon it, is not to have arrived. It is to have looked forward to the fulfilment of our journey, to have been given a foretaste.
As Aquinas puts it
Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
oro fiat illud quod tam sitio;
ut te revelata cernens facie,
visu sim beatus tuae gloriae..
And if your Latin didn’t get beyond O level either, here is James Woodford’s translation
O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see
May what we thirst for soon our portion be
To gaze on thee unveiled, and see thy face
The vision of thy glory and thy grace.
Today is the eve of another feast of the Church: Holy Cross Day. This had been in existence for around a millennium before Corpus Christ was established. Here we remember the blood shed, the sacrifice made, the battle won. May we, as we think of Christ and the forgiveness brought by the shedding of his blood, also look to that time when, unveiled, we will rejoice together at the heavenly banquet, and in that faith make our lives themselves a foretaste of heaven, for the sake of Christ our Lord, who feeds us and sustains us, now and for evermore. Amen.Print This Page