Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 – Baptism of the Lord, the First Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, January 13, 2013
“…and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3:21-22)
One of the challenges of reading and reacting to the four Gospels are their disagreements. How many people did Jesus feed? 4,000 or 5,000 . . . and how many times? Once? Twice? With Christmas just over, why no star shining in Luke or only magi trudging out of the shadows in Matthew? What women visited the tomb on Easter? Why did Matthew, so frequently paralleling Mark’s accounts, discard or forget Salome while including the two Marys? How could three Gospels not even hint at a parable like “the prodigal son?” Why does only Luke relate it?
Scholars will forever wrestle with the Gospel presences and absences. Believers will forever embrace, rationalize, or ignore the legion of contradictions. Heretics and heathens will forever wink and nod.
But then there’s that river recollection. Each and every Gospel had a version.
John the Baptizer bellowed repentance, the Jordan’s shores were crowded, and Jesus suddenly appeared. Amazing the similarities depicted by the four accounts. Still, even casual readers might detect the inevitable disparities.
At least some could! I handed in one of my first seminary assignments, a far-from-brilliant discourse on John the Baptist’s role, and had my professor politely suggest it could be revised. I’d brazenly stated John baptized Jesus in every Gospel. The professor—kindly and patient—suggested I re-read the fourth Gospel . . . where Jesus never entered the river. Perhaps he and the locust-eating Baptist exchanged greetings, but the Nazarene remained dry.
But there was the dove. Every Gospel contained the avian analogy. Like a dove, God’s spirit was upon Jesus.
Ah . . . a dove! Like the dove Noah once sent forth from the ark to scout for dry land? In the mythic flood (Genesis 8), the dove confirmed the water’s retreat by returning with an olive leaf. The symbolic dove; dove as hope.
Every day, in every season, I observe mourning doves in my backyard. You might also. Most maps depict their range as basically a map of the United States. Even Canada gets them in summer. Central America in the winter. Doves are everywhere.
Hope thrives everywhere?
Sometimes I wish the dove weren’t the baptismal poster bird. I think this when my cat Moses (a name he never lives up to) whacks one of our local doves and proudly hauls the feathered treasure inside. My wife and I divide chores: she yells at Moses and I remove the carnage.
In my suburban world, doves aren’t bright. Symbols for baptism? For the power and splendor of God’s spirit? Puh-lease!
Why not the Sandhill Crane? I once stood in a Wisconsin meadow, watching an immense crane awkwardly trot across the ground. Wings nearly six feet wide furiously flapped. Then the stumbling gait transformed into flight. Stunned, I witnessed Grus canadensis soar skyward. Its ancestors flew nearly 2,000,000 years ago, gliding over mastodons and saber-toothed tigers. I stared upward until my neck ached.
Or what of the red-shouldered hawk that has nested in my neighborhood in recent years? I hear it cry and search the nearby trees. How can such a large bird seem to vanish, a winged Houdini? And then, grace with feathers and talons, it launches from a branch into the blue.
On several backpacks, deep in the wilderness, I sauntered down a trail, thinking myself alone. Then, silence was shattered by a thunderous wunt, wunt, wunt! Was I under attack? Prelude to an earthquake? No, it was only a blue grouse. Only! Usually nesting on the ground, the grouse can be as large as a domestic chicken . . . and produce a scare-you-out-of-your-boots noise!
The flight of the crane. The suddenness of the hawk. The thunder of the grouse.
Why not baptismal hope symbolized by them? Why not God’s spirit likened to a mighty eagle or a peacock with its plumage rivaling a rainbow? Just a dove, the Gospels declared.
But maybe the humble, ubiquitous dove is good enough. From Browne Barr’s slender 1984 book High Flying Geese: Unexpected Reflections on the Church and Its Ministry, I first discovered one of the qualities of birds. Mourning dove or Sandhill crane, eagle or hawk, birds are built for flight with hollow bones. In a sense, empty of all but air, and yet so strong.
What of baptism?
Yes, there’s the water. Yes, we have penned grand and ancient words to celebrate baptismal traditions. Yes, all the Gospels amazingly agree on its beginnings. Still, though, that airborne symbol; feathered and present, hollow and even hallow. Among so many things, baptism should empty us. In baptism, we are bidden to learn to fly, not weighted with our human caution and worry, but faithfully built for and filled with divine hope.