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How a lowly Pelican became a symbol of Christ

From the Desk

The old Pelican Icon at the Bahay na Tisa in Pasig Town

As you ascend the old wooden staircase of Pasig Town's oldest and most iconic household - the Bahay na Tisa in Barangay San Jose, you would be greeted by a humble wooden icon of a mother pelican that seemed to feed her chicks. Upon close inspection of the old image you'll see droplets of blood gushing out from the mother pelican's chest where her beak is pointing. Could it be that the pelican is wounded and that the chicks are trying to heal their mother?

We all had fond memories of the Bahay na Tisa. It is indeed a sight to be hold. With all its antiquities and stories, the house is a repository of Pasig's living history. Being the oldest house still standing today, it remained as it was and continues to be a source of pride not only to the Tech Family but also their neighbors and the rest of the Pasiguenos. However, the house being a home to stern Catholics (Catolico Cerrados), the Bahay na Tisa also played a major part in the Pasig Church's activities and a center for Holy Week Traditions, Flores de Mayo and the Town Fiesta. As we enter once more the Holy Week confined in our homes due to the Covid 19 Pandemic, let us focus ourselves to the Pelican Image which we all know is a special treasure of this antiquated house.

Are there Pelicans in Pasig?

Technically, there "was". Pasig is situated near the shores of Laguna de Bay, in fact the river which lent her name to the town empties and fills herself in this lake where the Spot-Billed Pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) used to thrive. This kind of Pelican is unique in South-East Asia but due to man-made developments, populations started to decrease throughout the years with remaining large colonies found in Southern Cambodia and Sumatra. According to the Philippine Field Guide, these unique pelicans are small framed with white feathers, webbed feet and a flying range that reaches Southern China. Its beak is pinkish yellow with dark spots on the upper mandible hence its name, the Spot-Billed Pelican. They are great birds nestling in the Lake and feeds on both fresh and marine Waters. Which is why they are not only found in Laguna Lake but also in Candaba Swamp and other wetlands in Bulacan. Unfortunately, Pelicans in Laguna de Bay and the other environs were believed to be extinct by the 1940's. There were however some positive news as there were reported sightings of the extinct bird in Leyte Island though some are contesting that it was not a Spot-billed Pelican but a different species called the Dalmatian Pelican.

A taxidermized Spot Billed Pelican in the Museum of Natural History in Manila

A Pelican as the Greatest Symbol of Sacrifice

There are no more pelicans in Pasig but every Holy Week this particular icon gets resurrected and adorns the windows and somehow incorporated in the iconographies of the beloved Church. What's in it with the pelican that made it a Catholic Symbol of Sacrifice?

This symbolism is traced back even before Christianity itself was founded by Christ. According to legend, a mother pelican in times of great need and famine would strike her breasts to feed her brood with her own blood and prevent starvation. Another legend goes that a pelican would feed her chicks with her own flesh and blood to redeem and revive them from death but as a result would ultimately cause her demise. Sounds familiar?

These legends inspired early Christians to compare the lowly pelican to the sacrifices of our redeemer Jesus Christ. The bird symbolizes Jesus who gave His own life for the redemption and the atonement He made through his death on the cross. Just like the pelican story, humanity is dying with sin and disgrace when Christ came, offered his precious body and blood and partook it on the table that granted us everlasting life. Two thousand years after His passion, He continues to nourish us through the Holy Communion and the Sacraments that makes us whole and grace filled.

A page from the Bern Physiologus published some time in the 9th Century AD

The pelican story is just one of the handful bestial symbols found in an early Christian document called the Physiologus which appeared centuries after the death of Christ in Alexandria, Egypt that was probably written by Titus Flavius Clemens. The work features several animals and magical beasts with its corresponding allegorical interpretations. There are a lot of animal entries in the book. For one the Phoenix which burns itself to death and rises from her ashes on the third day symbolizes Christ's triumph from death and His resurrection. Another is the unicorn which only allows itself to be captured on the lap of a pure virgin symbolizes the incarnation.

The entry of the pelican story in the text describes "The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young". The pouring of blood over the dead chicks would revived them and make them well. Similarly, like men, we have struck God more than once by loving the material things He has made but not the Maker. By ascending in the Cross and with His side struck and pierced, blood and water gushed out that led to our spiritual nourishment and redemption. This story is so popular in the middle ages that the Pelican became an important symbol of our Lord, the Redeemer. As a result, pelican icons became a mainstay in Christian Iconographies that continue to adorn Churches and homes. This tradition reached the Philippines through the Spaniards who gave us our Catholic Faith.

As we move on this Holy Week - Ang Mga Mahal na Araw, may we always remember that the Pelican is a powerful symbol Christ's ultimate sacrifice, who suffered and died for us to grant us eternal life. It also reminds us that we are pilgrims on the way to Him and through our nourishment with the Holy Eucharist, our hunger is satisfied and our souls filled. Let this image move us to show compassion, charity and the spirit of self-giving especially at these trying times.

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