By Fr Jason Smith
The Baptism of the Lord was accompanied by one of the most stunning and remarkable events found in Sacred Scripture: The rending open of the heavens, the visible descent of the Spirit like a dove, and the Father’s audible voice.
The importance of this remarkable moment can not be underestimated. Not only was it pivotal for Jesus himself but also for the early Church, as it is found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and was frequently commented on by the Church Fathers. Today, however, the full meaning and import of this unique moment is unclear or perhaps even lost.
Over the next few weeks I’d like to offer a primer reflecting on this event as found in the Gospel of Luke, 3, 21-22, which offers powerful insights into the life of Christ and our faith in the Triune God.
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke writes that the Spirit descended over Jesus in corporeal form, like a dove. There are several references to a dove in the Old Testament which are relevant to our text, as well as the Spirit’s coming in other corporeal forms as understood in light of the New Testament.
The image of the dove in the Old Testament
The image of a dove is often found in the Old Testament. It was a symbol of the covenant established between God and man (Gn 8, 6-12). Its flight recalled the return of the chosen people from exile (Is 60:8; Os 11:11). It was symbolic of a woman who is loved (Ct 2:14; 5:2; 6:9). The Spirit of God, moving over the waters of creation, (Gn 1:2) may be interpreted as a bird hovering over its young, though any bird will do to make this comparison, not just a dove. Scripture scholar Howard Marshal believes that the dove found in Gn 8:8-12 is also relevant to our reflection: “An allusion to Noah’s dove, gains in plausibility if John’s baptism was intended to symbolise the coming flood of judgement, so recalling the flood of Noah; for then the dove would signify the end of judgement and the beginning of a new era of grace.”
As interesting as these interpretations are, the meaning of the dove in view of the Old Testament alone remains a mystery: it was never used as a symbol of the Spirit. Only in the New Testament does it assume this meaning, understood after the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The dove interpreted in light of the New Testament
For St Augustine, the Spirit’s coming in the form of a dove was a sign of unity and simplicity: “We learn, then, from the dove, that those who are sanctified by the Spirit should be without guile: and from the fire, how their simplicity should not be left to wax cold. Nor let it disturb anyone that the tongues were cloven—in the dove recognize unity.”
Saint Thomas gives four reasons why the Holy Spirit appeared to Christ under the form of a dove.
First, because the dove is an animal of simple character, void of cunning and deceit it can be a model as to how to approach the sacraments. “On account of the disposition required in the one baptized—namely, that he approach the sacrament in good faith.”
Second, “in order to designate the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are signified by the properties of the dove.” St Thomas goes on to list the seven gifts of the Spirit, and their relationship to the qualities of a dove.
Third, “The Holy Ghost appeared under the form of a dove on account of the proper effect of baptism, which is the remission of sins and reconciliation with God: for the dove is a gentle creature.” Thomas then goes on to quote St John Chrysostom, “at the Deluge this creature appeared bearing an olive branch, and publishing the tidings of the universal peace of the whole world: and now again the dove appears at the baptism, pointing to our Deliverer.”
Finally Thomas writes, “The Holy Ghost appeared over our Lord at His baptism in the form of a dove, in order to designate the common effect of baptism—namely, the building up of the unity of the Church.”
Next Saturday we will look at the dove not as it relates to baptism but to Jesus himself.
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