Tag Archives: Last Supper

The pelican and her chicks a symbol for the Eucharist

August 17, 2018

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There is an image of a mother pelican with her chicks carved into the capital at the top of a pillar that supports a stone canopy over a stairway at the Cenacle or the Coenaculum, the upper room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the place that commemorates where 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.

A mother pelican lays its eggs in a nest, and after they hatch, the mother pelican leaves the nest to go hunting for food, and then returns and feeds the chicks. Many species of birds feed their young with worms. Pelicans usually live near the water, have webbed feet, and long beaks with pouches, and their usual prey is small fish or other aquatic animals such as frog tadpoles, crayfish, or even salamanders.

In times of drought the marshes and streams may dry up, or something may 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.
Mother pelican
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 flowed from the pelican’s breast, and blood flowed from Jesus’ side (Jn 19:34b). The mother’s blood was drink for her chicks, and the blood of Jesus is “true drink” (Jn 6:55b). The mother gave her life that her chicks might live, and Jesus laid down his life that we might live (Jn 15:13). The mother’s blood saved the lives of the chicks, and the blood of Jesus is salvation and eternal life (Jn 6:54) to 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 the mother pelican and her chicks is frequently 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.

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Thursday of the Lord’s Supper – Eucharist and Humble Service

March 23, 2018

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Last SupperThe Last Supper took place on the first Holy Thursday. It was that night that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, but curiously, the gospel for the Mass on Holy Thursday is not the Institution Narrative, it is the footwashing.

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, No. 11). It is foremost among the other sacraments because it is received most often, unites a person to Jesus who is truly present, affords a special opportunity for a close personal conversation with Jesus, is spiritual sustenance and a fountain of grace for a lifetime, places a person in communion with the other members of the Body of Christ, forgives venial sins, and provides the companionship of Jesus on the journey through human life and the final journey to heaven and eternal life.

Important as the Eucharist is, it is not the gospel on Holy Thursday, it is the second reading (1 Cor 11:23-26). It is one of the four accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist in the New Testament (Mt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26; Lk 22:14-20). Why is an Institution Narrative not used for the gospel on Holy Thursday? And why take a passage from the Gospel of John, the only evangelist whose gospel does not have the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper?

Holy Thursday Foot Washing

It is not because John believes that the Eucharist is unimportant. He is the only evangelist to write a Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6:22-71), an extended reflection on the importance of the Eucharist. John alone calls Jesus the bread of life, says that the Eucharist bread from heaven, and explains that his flesh is true food and his blood true drink, that Jesus will dwell within whoever receives the Eucharist, and that it leads to eternal life.

The footwashing is the gospel on Holy Thursday, and John is the only evangelist to report it. It took place at the Last Supper before the institution of the Eucharist and for John, the footwashing and the Eucharist are closely related. The footwashing prefigures the crucifixion. Jesus humbly gave of himself when he washed his disciples’ feet, and he humbly gave of himself when he gave his life on the Cross; and this parallels the Eucharist in which Jesus gave his body and blood under the form of bread and wine, and then gave his body and blood on the Cross.

Eucharist is about True Presence. Jesus is present under the forms of bread and wine, and with the footwashing, John is conveying another perspective on True Presence. Jesus is present in the form of humble service. Jesus was present to his disciples when he took off his outer garments and knelt down at their feet, a touching demonstration of humility, and then washed and dried their feet, a tender expression of love in menial service. When a disciple offers humble service to anyone, particularly in lowly ordinary tasks, and does so out of love, Jesus is made present.

And the Eucharist is ordered to service. Once a person receives the Eucharist at Mass and leaves the church, the person has been energized to serve others in the name of Jesus. The communicant humbly and cheerfully gives humble service, particularly in the little things, giving freely, without seeking repayment or notice. Service drains energy, and once depleted, the communicant needs to go to Mass to receive Holy Communion again to be reenergized for the next round of service. The Eucharist leads to service, and service leads to the Eucharist.

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