First Communion and a pelican

By | May 12, 2014

What symbols would adorn your first Communion banner today?

Remember your first Communion? What symbols did you see?

During the Easter season, parishes celebrate first Communion. Many of the children make banners to adorn the church. The banners are filled with symbols of the sacrament.

Most have loaves of bread, a chalice, lambs, white hosts, yellow wheat and purple grapes. Some have crosses.

But what would you think if you saw a first Communion banner with a pelican or a peacock holding grapes, or a fish? How about wedding guests drinking wine?

Wheat and grapes

There are many symbols of the Eucharist, including wheat and grapes. Besides the Gospels, references to the eucharistic meal are found in a late first- or early second-century text called the Didache. In its ninth chapter, we see images of wheat seeds: “Just as the bread we break, once scattered over the hills, has been gathered and made one, so may the church be assembled from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.”

Fish and wine

Other early eucharistic symbols exist in Roman catacombs. Here, according to “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” the Eucharist is represented in images of the wedding at Cana: water jars and wine and people at a party.

Also found in the catacombs are symbols of fish. There are several reasons for this.

  • Two Gospel stories that prefigure the Eucharist involve loaves and fish. All four Gospels tell how Jesus used five loaves and two fish and fed 5,000. Mark and Matthew also tell of another time when Jesus fed 4,000 with seven loaves “and a few fish.”
  • At the base of the altar in the Church of the Multiplication beside the Sea of Galilee, you can find an ancient mosaic of a basket of loaves flanked by two fish. This Tabgha mosaic dates to the fourth century.
  • Besides bread and wine, early Christians also shared a meal, known as “the agape feast,” that included fish. This communal meal accompanied early Christian gatherings to celebrate the Eucharist. New Testament expert Jesuit Fr. Daniel Harrington notes that eating fish with bread reminded early Christians of the gift of manna and quail in the desert.
  • The risen Christ ate fish with his disciples after his resurrection (Lk 24:41-43) and fed them bread and fish for breakfast (Jn 21:9). This second instance led to many representations in catacombs and early Christian art. John tells us that there were seven disciples, including Peter, that morning. The paintings always depict seven around a table and, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes of a second century fresco: “the seven banqueters are depicted nude, the manner in which fishermen were invariably represented in classic art.”

Birds

Besides using quail on a Communion banner, two other birds could represent the Eucharist.

  • The pelican was a popular symbol of Christ in the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, wrote about the pelican in his eucharistic hymn, Adoro te devote. The pelican legend dates to a Greek text about animals — some real and some imaginary like the phoenix — written in the second to third century. According to the Physiologus story, the pelican will feed its young with its own blood if necessary, piercing its breast to do so. Early Christians saw a link to the pierced side of Christ on the cross. Another legend about pelicans is that the male bird may kill its young in the nest, but, after three days, the mother pelican will come and raise her dead brood to life. This reminded Christians of the eternal life given by Christ’s resurrection.
  • Another bird associated with Christ is the peacock. The reason is two-fold: legends said the peacock’s flesh does not decay after death — as Christ’s body did not undergo decay. And the many eyes on a peacock’s tail were linked to the all-seeing eye of God. When a peacock is used to symbolize the Eucharist, it is shown with grapes.

Other symbols

The grapevine is yet another Eucharistic symbol, not only for its grapes, but because Christ called himself “the vine” and his followers “the branches” (Jn 15:5).

Two other symbols that could appear on first Communion banners are the altar — where the Body and Blood are made present by their consecration, and the tabernacle, where the eucharistic Lord is present.

One big symbol remains. Do you remember wearing white for your first Communion?

White is a symbol. It stands for Baptism, when we received a white robe or gown. As baptized in Christ, we are allowed to wear the alb, the white garment used at liturgy and the symbol of the spotless robes that the saints wear for eternity: robes washed clean in the blood of the Lamb (Rv 7:14). The white of Communion dresses and of some Communion suits symbolizes those white robes.

Countless symbols could represent the Eucharist. The National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Libertyville, Ill., has 99 eucharistic symbols in the stained glass windows of its Eucharistic chapel. Whatever your favorite symbol, let it remind you of how much God loves us.

 

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; the Didache; Physiologus; churchyear.net; Conventual Franciscans at www.marytown.com; “A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art”; “Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols.”

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press (2011). Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” is now available through Our Sunday Visitor Press.

 

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