January 11, 2009
Today’s gospel recounts the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. It is a very familiar scene. All of us know it. Many of us have seen multiple artistic depictions of what has been described. But what many of us might not know is that there is a perplexing problem in this gospel which vexes biblical scholars, a detail that they find difficult to explain. It is said that as Jesus comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. It is from this passage that the Spirit has become associated with a dove. But scholars cannot figure out what is the significance of the dove. There are other images of the Holy Spirit that would be much easier to explain. The Spirit is often associated with the wind. Wind would indicate that the Spirit is unseen and is difficult to direct. The Spirit is sometimes said to be like fire. That significance is clear. It represents the burning love of God. But what does it mean to say that the Spirit is like a dove?
Confused by this problem, scholars turn to where they usually turn: the Old Testament. They know that the gospel writers often pulled their imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. They know that if they could find references to doves in the Old Testament, the contexts of those passages might provide the reason that Spirit is said to be like a dove. This is a good strategy, but the problem is that there are very few references to doves in the Old Testament. Noah releases a dove from the ark, and the Israelites are required to offer two turtle doves in the temple. But neither of these contexts provides a clearer meaning about Jesus’ baptism. So, scripture scholars remain confused. They are not sure why the Spirit is like a dove.
But there is one small passage in an ancient Jewish commentary on the Bible, which does mention a dove. I like to think that this passage reveals to us what the dove is doing at Jesus’ baptism. The ancient Jewish commentator says, “The divine voice comes to us cooing like a dove.” The implication is that God speaks to us quiet and gentle ways, like the cooing of a dove. What is so effective about this particular interpretation of the dove is the way that it shifts the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. Normally, as we picture Jesus’ baptism, we do so in dramatic terms. We imagine the skies opening with thunder, or the voice coming from heaven booming with grandeur. But when we consider that the dove represents God’s gentleness and quietness, it implies that Jesus’ baptism was not like that at all. Perhaps, as he came out of the waters of the Jordan, he experienced a quiet sense in his heart, a gentle but certain assertion, “You are my son, whom I love. And I have a mission for you.” It could have been very ordinary, very common. No lightening or cymbals, just the gentle whisper of God’s love.
When we look at Jesus’ baptism this way, it reminds us that there are many miracles in our lives which are not dramatic. God touches us in many ways which are both ordinary and gentle. We might be watching our children or our grandchildren play and are suddenly struck with the realization, “How blessed I am, and how thankful I should be.” We might simply witness a friend who shows generosity or forgiveness to someone else and be moved by the thought, “I should reconcile myself to someone who has hurt me.” We might be struggling with sickness or depression and then receive an unexpected phone call of support. Suddenly it is in our heart that things will be okay, that there is reason for hope. We might be sitting in church or watching the snow fall, and suddenly feel a prompt, “It is time to make a change, to try something new, to commit to a new direction.”
It is important for us not to miss the ordinary and gentle ways that God speaks to us in our lives. Our God is not committed only to thunder and drama. God is certainly capable of pulling us up by the nape of our neck, but usually God works in more subtle ways. That is why we should listen and be attentive. We do not want to miss the gentle breeze of God’s Spirit. That is why we must attune our ears, so that we will be able to hear the cooing of God’s love.