Sitting in a Communist country on top of a monument to fallen firefighters, is a Daughter of Charity immortalized in stone. Her face is somber, clutching a cross to her chest, and she sits with a mother pelican and her two babies.
A Daughter of Charity Postulant writes in her blog about what she learned. The Sister and the Pelican: Loving the World as Jesus Did
The image struck me when I came across it browsing the St Vincent de Paul Image Archive at DePaul University (one thing a Vincentian dork such as myself loves to do). I recently discovered, thanks to a friend from Louisana, that there is a legend that mother pelicans stab themselves to give blood to their young when no other food is available and that eventually the pelican evolved into a Christian symbol. As for the Sister, is that Daughter based on a real person or rather a representation of the Daughters of Charity as a whole? I may never know, but there is some reason for her to be sitting next to the pelican.
But this blog post isn’t about the Daughters of Charity. Nor is it about pelicans.
It’s about my assumption of why she and the pelicans sit on that monument to firefighters – that is, they represent self-sacrifice. As Christians, self-sacrifice is our whole reason for being. It’s the reason we attend church services every Sunday, it’s the reason we pray, it’s the reason we believe with deep conviction that God loves us and it’s the reason we’ve been persecuted and martyred.
To us, Jesus is more than just a companion, more than just a moral leader, more than just a miracle worker, more than just an advocate for the poor. He is the Son of God, God incarnate sent from above. But most important, he is God who sacrificed Himself for us – not out of pure obligation, but rather out of deep love. He is that mother pelican who wounds or even kills herself to feed her young. By His death two thousand years ago, he fed us. Somehow, through such a sorrowful event, He changed the world entirely. When He died, the veil of the temple tore into two, the earth shook, and rocks split. It was only a physical representation of what changed within us ourselves. When we accept His self-sacrifice as a Savior, something within us changes. Our lives become dedicated to him – our hearts catch fire.
We admire those who practice self-sacrifice – people like Saint Maximilan Kolbewho, upon hearing a family man picked out of a crowd in Auschwitz to be starved to death in a bunker, volunteered himself to go instead (the father died 53 years after this incident, in 1995). We admire those that throw themselves in front of a bullet or train or car, pushing another out of the way, whether they be mother, father, friend, priest or nun.
But self-sacrifice is more than an event. It’s a life. And that’s actually the hardest, and probably most frightful, part. Jesus gave us the ultimate example – He gave His life to save it. Will we die to save someone else? Probably not. Yet, there is a reason the Gospels are more about Jesus’ death (and resurrection). Jesus preached self sacrifice – “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He lived a life of a nomad, sacrificing a life at home with a family he loved, in order to preach the Good News to all who will hear. He faced great temptations – temptations that would certainly make his life easier – yet he rejected them all in favor of being a Messiah of love, not power. Even apart from His death, Jesus sacrificed so much for us during His life. If our hearts are truly set on fire by conversion, by accepting the sacrifice of His death, we know that Jesus becomes our one desire and that includes imitating Him in all, including self-sacrifice, not just to gain eternal life but to love the whole world as Jesus did.
Henri Nouwen wrote ”I know that I have to move from speaking about Jesus to letting him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through his eyes.”
Let us see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Let us allow Him to speak through us and to act through us.
And by doing so, as hard as it may be, as much as all of us struggle with it, let us be examples of self-sacrifice – as those pelicans, as that Daughter of Charity, as those firefighters to whom that monument is dedicated, as many who live among us and have gone before us – truly given to living our lives for others rather than ourselves, truly loving the world as Jesus did.