In Ron Hansen’s marvelous short story, “Playland,” an enormous
pelican flaps down onto a beach and approaches one of the main
characters. To quote from the story, the bird “waddled toward him, her
wings amorously fanning out to a span of ten feet or more as she struck
herself thumpingly on the breast with her beak until a spot of red
appeared on her feathers.” When we read “Playland” in my Catholic
writing course here at the University of Portland, the students realize
right away that the author means the big bird to have symbolic
significance. There is usually someone in the room who recognizes that
the pelican is a figure of Christ. The tradition apparently goes back to an
early Greek Christian text called The Physiologus , which became one of
the most popular works of the European Middle Ages. The Physiologus is
a collection of stories about animals, to which Christian allegorical
interpretations are attached. According to the story as it was received
into popular culture, the pelican pecks at her own breast until it bleeds
and feeds her chicks with her blood. This powerful maternal image was
taken as a reference to Christ and the Eucharist. The allegory works, not
just because of the reference to blood as food, but because the story
reflects our experience that Our Lord’s love for us knows no limits. It’s
just the kind of thing that Jesus would do. Of course we have just
celebrated the consummate expression of this truth in the Easter Triduum.
By his Passion, Christ demonstrates that no sacrifice for us is too great.
Today’s Gospel reveals that the same is true after the Resurrection.
When the other disciples tell Thomas that the Risen Lord has appeared to
them in his absence, Thomas replies “Unless I see the mark of the nails in
his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his
side, I will not believe.” When Christ appears to the disciples again a week
later, Thomas is present. Our Lord says to him, “Put your finger here and
see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be
unbelieving, but believe.” I think it’s important to realize that Christ is
not being sarcastic or ironic here. It’s not as if he’s saying, “For heaven’s
sake, Thomas, what do I have to do, draw you a picture?” No, he’s saying, in effect, “Thomas, if that’s what it’s going to take to make you believe, fine. Get over here.” And surely it is this attitude on Our Lord’s part, this willingness to suffer any indignity for the sake of a single soul, that far more than the nail marks themselves, causes Thomas to recognize him and to cry out, “My Lord and my God.” It’s just the kind of thing that Jesus would say – just the kind of thing that he would do.
Christ responds to Thomas’s expression of faith by asking, “Have
you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who
have not seen and have believed.” That’s us. We’re the one’s who’ve
not seen the marks in Our Lord’s body, yet believe. But, with eyes of
faith, we can recognize in one another the kind of things that he would
say – the kind of things that he would do. We can find Christ reflected in
ten thousand places, even in a loving mother bird.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”