Innocent as Doves
“As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” Matthew 3:16
What do you think of when you see a dove? I’ve been looking through our Christmas cards, hoping for inspiration as to how to recycle them into something else this year, and I noticed how many consist of a large dove and little else. I suppose it’s to do with the Angel’s message of peace and goodwill, but it’s not the central theme of that wonderful birth is it? We have doves on Christmas Trees and decorations. jewellery and badges, and even on some articles of clothing, and so on, It is becoming increasingly popular to release doves at weddings and funerals, in fact the daughters of an early member of our congregation, Joan Riggs, released some doves after her funeral service ten or so years ago.
The symbolism of a dove is universally understood to mean peace . Since the 1800s, the image of a dove with an olive branch has been widely used to mark peace treaties or in campaigns and artwork promoting peace. At public events celebrating or calling for peace, the release of white doves is a common sight and a symbol often associated with the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.
So when we see the image of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus, we automatically think of peace. This isn’t wrong, but nor is it the full picture, as there are other important aspects of the dove imagery in the Bible. There, we see a dove for the first time in the story of the flood. Noah releases a dove after the storm and the dove returns to the ark with an olive branch (Genesis 8:11). With this, the good news is that the land is drying. After all the pain and destruction, a new beginning has arrived. It is time to rebuild again.
Yet, there is another image of a dove in both the Old and New Testaments that we often overlook. This is the offering of a dove as the sacrifice of the poor who cannot afford to pay for the sacrifice of a larger animal Isn’t it reassuring that we serve a God who acknowledges and makes provision for the little people, not just the big and important ones? And so we see Mary go to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate her firstborn son to the Lord when Jesus is 40 days old, and in their material poverty offering up 2 doves as a sacrifice (Luke 2:22-24).
Thus, when a Jew in the time of Jesus saw a dove, he wouldn’t be thinking of world peace or the United Nations, but his mind would have turned to the sacrifices of the poor – those with whom Jesus identified himself so closely throughout his ministry. And still does today, calling us to do similarly.
In the writings of the Early Church Fathers and in church paintings, we see the dove used almost entirely for the Holy Spirit Yet, the New Testament also speaks of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the believers in the Upper Room as “tongues of fire”, empowering and enabling them to be Jesus’s witnesses in every situation.. Throughout the Bible we not only see the Spirit giving peace but also disturbing complacency, challenging motives and lifestyles. and even at times punishing people!
When it comes to understanding the significance of a dove descending on Jesus, it does indeed symbolise peace and the Holy Spirit. But it should also remind us of the pure, innocent sacrifice of Jesus’ own life – the life he laid down for the salvation of the poor, the downtrodden and excluded, and all of us spiritually poor who cannot save ourselves.
The news confronts us each day with the lack of peace and growing instability in many areas of our world, not least the countries that experienced the so-called Arab Spring which is descending by and large into a bitter winter. Are we perhaps called to be white doves in these dark days, wherever we are; pure and innocent beings (Matthew 10:16) whose sacrifices bring peace, hope and salvation to a world in need? This morning I read this in a book called “The Dance of Life” by Judith Pinhey:
“My Church, through you, in your brokenness, my peace may be made known. Speak peace with your lives, and be like a stamp that enables a letter to go through the post, bringing messages of comfort and good hope from Me.”
We are not left alone in this task, but the same Spirit of the Lord which empowered Jesus at his baptism is within us, giving us the strength we need (Ephesians 1:19). That must be worth at least a faint Hallelujah!