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Of Pelicans and Gardeners



Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). ~ John 20:15-16


One of the more obscure symbols for Christ is the pelican. The reason for considering a pelican to represent Christ is based on a misunderstanding of pelicans. They are believed to use their own blood to feed their young. This is not true. At times, pelicans can appear to be drawing blood from their bodies using their red-tipped bill. The facts that their pouches sometimes turn red and at times their plumage takes on a pinkish tint seem to support the theory that blood is involved, but makes it hard to believe they are sharing it with their offspring. What they are actually doing is preening, reaching with its beak to the uropygial gland to extract preen oil, which is reddish in color. The oil is spread by the pelican’s beak and back of its head to all other feathers, helping to keep them water resistant and dry. The preening explains the color change of the body and the seasonal rise of hormones during the breeding season accounts for the red pouch.


We can choose to snicker or scoff at the ignorance that led to the belief or we can acknowledge the power of mythological imagination. Knowing that pelicans are not actually giving of themselves does not negate the value of self-sacrifice lifted up by the story. Mythological imagination overlays meaning on stories not to change the facts but to use the stories to recall and reinforce important truths. The story of Mary encountering and misidentifying the risen Christ should not be restricted by a search for demonstrable facts. Regardless of what actually happened in that garden, this story begs the question, “why didn’t Mary recognize Jesus?” The details aren’t shared, but surely we are meant to understand that resurrection is something completely transformative. Whatever this was, it was more than a resuscitation. The detail of mistaking Christ for the gardener cannot be included for no reason. Perhaps part of the meaning being overlaid on this story involves the work of a gardener. Any time we experience tending and nurturing care similar to a gardener’s work, we should take a second look so that we might see Christ. And certainly the author is making the point that the tool needed to understand resurrection is relationship. The moment that Mary experiences the thrill of joy is when she is recognized and the relationship is restored. Even death could not separate her from the love of her savior. That is no less true for us, because love never dies. Love always wins.


Prayer: Sacred Gardener, remind us that you walk with us and talk with us, and even when we misidentify you, we are near to unspeakable joy

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