WHAT’s in a name? After Jesus has been baptised, the Holy Spirit descends on him “like a dove”. Or is it a pigeon? Nature makes no firm distinction between them: both are members of the same bird family. The Bible agrees, making doves and pigeons interchangeable as sacrificial offerings. So, why are doves beautiful, whereas pigeons are a nuisance?
Partly this is a question of familiarity breeding contempt. Collared doves were once a rarity in the UK; and turtle doves (which are summer migrants) are becoming rare. But we are never short of pigeons. The countryside is full of wood pigeons, and towns are full of feral pigeons. In both cases, they can be a common nuisance. The same word — yonah, in Hebrew — usually refers to both birds in scripture. Occasionally, the Hebrew word tor is used: this makes the bird easy to identify, by its call, as the turtle (tur-tur) dove.
When I think of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus “like a dove”, I want it to happen delicately, gently. Yet when pigeons and doves take flight or land they are clumping, noisy. I imagine this baptismal dove/pigeon doing what no real-life bird of its kind has ever done, and hovering above Jesus’s head. This we see in many an artistic image.
If hovering were authentic, a kestrel (also known as a windhover) would have done better. But kestrels are birds of prey — they divide flesh and spirit (Hebrews 4.12) — whereas Jesus is not yet even a dainty falcon, never mind a mighty eagle of divine truth. Besides, birds that are killers do not fit the brief: the Holy Spirit is described (Isaiah 65.25) in terms more akin to a vegetarian than a carnivore, as befits the Spirit’s pacifist credentials (Genesis 8.11).
It may be that our technology-dominated existence has blunted the sensitivity of our imagination here. The key thing about doves/pigeons is that they fly. This realm of movement was impossible in Bible days, but, for us, it is available to anyone who can afford an air fare. The ability to fly links earth and heaven, bridging the gap between the realms of the divine and the human. A dove may have been the form chosen to describe this unique descent of the Holy Spirit simply because it is a species pleasing to God (an acceptable sacrifice, Luke 2.24), and especially associated with heavenly good news (the first confirmation that the flood was ending, Genesis 8.12).
The order of events in this scene is more than usually important. According to Luke, the baptism (in water) takes place first. Immediately, Jesus responds by praying — perhaps merely as one among the many who were baptised there. Then, something happens that singles him out. After his water baptism, heaven opens, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice sounds from heaven.
So, we are invited to imagine a crowded, buzzing scene, a high pitch of spiritual excitement; next, sudden stillness, and maybe silence, allowing the voice from heaven to be heard by all those who, until that moment, had been talking excitedly of their own baptisms. Then, the revelation of the true identity of the seeming nobody: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It is a conversation between Father and Son, on which those who were at the waterside were privileged to eavesdrop — or so I once thought. But a little reflection convinced me that they, too, were chosen, to be witnesses: witnesses not only of a relationship of affection (“beloved”, “pleased”), but also of kinship (“my Son”).
A Gospel so rich in detail leaves little room for other texts. But there is space enough to note that the Isaiah passage (vv. 1, 7) puts God’s name front and centre in the salvific process. In Acts, moreover, baptism is effected specifically in the name of God’s Son (v. 16); and is incomplete until, through apostolic invocation, the Holy Spirit is given to those who “accept the word of God” (v. 14). How, then, shall we know if people have been fully baptised, with water, the divine name, and the Holy Spirit? Paperwork and eyewitnesses should guarantee the first two conditions. The descent of the Holy Spirit may be felt by the persons receiving it; but the only sure test for this mark of the disciple is a life lived for God.