Dove Descending

"The Dove Descending" W. Zeitler [ORGAN]

"Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart"


In the story of Jesus’ baptism, why does the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove? And not a camel or a cactus? It must be because God is trying to tell us something by using that particular representation. So what would a dove suggest to a person in Jesus’ place and time? What associations might have arisen in their minds from their cultural perspective?

From the beginning of ancient humanity’s use of symbols, the dove has signified peace, purity, simplicity, and patience in suffering. The ancients also insisted that the dove has no gall bladder (the seat of anger in their view) and thus knew no malice. We find baked clay models of doves dating from the Neolithic era (roughly 12,000 BCE* to 3,500 BCE) and continuing almost to the dawn of Greek civilization (roughly 300 BCE), idols to whom sacrifies were offered. When not outright divine, the dove was closely associated with divinity in the Mycenaen, Phoenician, Philistine and Hittite cultures. The dove was also dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite (the goddess of Love) and Venus (the name the Romans gave to Aphrodite) – early Christians later adopted the dove to symbolize God’s Love. And we still see the dove used this way to the present day. So to someone in first century Palestine, a dove descending on Jesus would be loudly signifying "Divinity!"

Probably the most well known dove in the Hebrew Scriptures is the one that brought an olive branch to Noah, signifying that the flood was over. This led Jews and early Christians quite naturally to the idea of the olive branch as a symbol of peace, and the dove as its herald. Indeed, the early Christians viewed Noah’s ark as an archetype of the Church, saving all who are safely within, complete with God’s peace and love descending on it in the form of the olive branch and dove.

The prelude, "The Dove Descending," alternates between two sections/ideas. The first opens with a descending musical gesture high in the right hand — suggestive of the descending dove. When the dove descends on me, so to speak, something within me (hopefully) responds and ascends from the depths in its own lumbering way, unlike the graceful descent of the dove (hence the more lumbering musical response in the left hand). In the story of Jesus' baptism, the dove descends and Jesus arises out of the Jordan river.

The other section uses the idea of the lowly left hand (me) following/imitating the loftier right hand (the promptings of the Holy Spirit). It does this using the idea of "row row row your boat" (a "canon") — the left hand repeats — follows — what the right hand does. Or at least it tries to — the lower line can’t manage a very good imitation of the higher — it errs and stumbles, but always gets back on track. With time the lower line gets better at following the higher.

* Note: I use CE and BCE (Common Era and Before Common Era) instead of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini – the Year of our Lord) because we now know that Jesus’ birth was more like 4 BCE to 6 BCE. It’s a little late to shift all our calendars to make "The Year of Our Lord" correct, and "Common Era" is more culturally neutral, so the scholarly community has settled on "Common Era" — a term that can be traced back to Kepler.