The Holy Spirit as Dove will be the topic of my PhD dissertation this upcoming year. You could also call it: “Early Christianity as Primal Religion”. By that I mean a type or pattern of religion that includes kinship with nature, a deep sense of human’s finitude, a conviction that humanity is not alone in the universe, a belief that humanity can enter into a relationship with a benevolent spirit world, and a mental structuring of a sacred universe. More on that in another post.
I am interested particularly in Luke’s vision of a dove descending in bodily form. Here Luke suggests to the reader that the heavens opened after Jesus’ baptism, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in “bodily form”. Various interpretations categorize this experience as a symbol or a visionary ecstatic (narcotic) experience.
What if Luke simply meant that an actually bird came and rested on Jesus? What would it mean if an incarnated Holy Spirit alighted on Jesus? And what would this omen have signified to those who witnessed the event?
The implications are important. If there were a real bird, it probably evoked awe, since entities of the air, clouds, winds, sun, moon, stars, and birds all were seen as mysterious and sometimes dreadful omens. Yet, that a dove rested upon Jesus indicates a Lordship over the dominion of the air. The dove makes it safely through the perils of the demon possessed sky. Athanasius, writing one to two hundred years later makes a similar claim about the nature of Jesus’ death:
“Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race who, having fallen from heaven, endeavors with the other evil spirits…but the lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make a ‘way for us’ up to heaven…This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross…” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 4.31-34.)
The point: for the early Christians, Jesus was good Lord not only over the ruling elite, even the Roman empire, but also he ruled over the whole cosmos, all of nature. Jesus and his possy at the last supper were probably not singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. So, as we hurl into the 21st century, as we regain our vision for the sanctity of creation in a global world, we can and must look to the early Christians for a guiding vision of Jesus and his heart for this world.