What's the Significance of the Dove?

Letters from a Pastor to His People- January 13, 2019

Dear Parishioners,

"And the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (Lk 3:22).  What's the significance of the dove?

We know now that the dove is one of the forms or images of the Holy Spirit. But for the crowd witnessing Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, they would not have picked up on this.  They simply would have seen a bird flying in the sky that happened to hover above this young adult.  The Old Testament made no mention of God being a bird.  But there are, however, some Old Testament references to the dove, and I'd like to use these to unpack the dove's significance in the Baptism of our Lord.

Noah releases a dove during the flood to determine if dry land has appeared; if the flood waters have begun to recede (cf. Gen 8:8).  It first returns with an olive branch and then, at last, it never returns, indicating to Noah that the land is once again habitable, as the dove is able to settle on it.    

Christ is the new man, representative of the new creation.  He emerges from the waters, just as that new land upon which Noah's dove settled emerged from the flood waters.  Jesus is the new people of God, emerging from water as Moses and the Israelites emerged from the Red Sea waters free from sin.

The Book of Leviticus indicates that the dove was to be used as a sacrifice offering in the temple.  Recall, Mary and Joseph offered a dove when they present Jesus in the temple.  Fulton Sheen makes the interesting point that the dove indicated the economic and social position of the offeror:

A man who could afford it would bring a bullock, and a poorer man would offer a lamb; but the poorest of all had the privilege of bringing doves. When the mother of Our Lord brought him to the temple, her offering was a dove. The dove was the symbol of gentleness and peacefulness, but above all it was the type of sacrifice possible to the lowliest people. 

The dove descending upon Jesus tells us that Jesus is, fundamentally, to be an offering.  And not just any offering, but the humblest of offerings. 

Finally, the Song of Songs speaks of the dove as a symbol for beauty: "How beautiful you are, my darling! How beautiful! Your eyes are like doves" (Sgs 1:15).  The whiteness of the dove, a sign of purity, is something beautiful.  Christ is likewise beautiful.  His beauty lies not just in his freedom from sin, but in his complete love and submission to the Father.  This is why the Father at the baptism is able to speak, "You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased" (Lk 3:22).

Though the Jews did not think of the dove as God, pagans actually did.  The dove was an image of the mother goddess, as they represented feminine fertility and procreation.  Archaelogists have discovered coins and statues with doves for the Canaanite goddesses Asherah and Astarte, the Phoenician and later Punic goddess, Tanit, and the Roman goddesses Venus and Fortunata.

The dove isn't a false God.  It is the Holy Spirit.  And it descends upon Christ, making him even more beautiful and fruitful.  May the Holy Spirit descend upon us to give us a beautiful and fruitful life. 

I will be away at Mundelein Seminary Monday through Friday morning this week for my spiritual director training workshop. Men's Club will meet this Monday evening at 7:30pm in the school hall and Cancer Support has its monthly meeting this Tuesday.  Teen Ministry will be this Sunday evening at 5pm. Next Sunday, January 20th is a Family Mass at 11am.

Have a blessed week and go Bears!

Yours in Christ,

Fr. James

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