The Gospel for this Sunday is already preparing us for the great Pentecost event. When you think of the Holy Spirit, do you envision tongues of fire, a fiercely driving wind or, like the prophet Elijah, the Holy Spirit as a quiet gentle stirring? For most of us, the first image that comes to mind is a white dove.
Doves are very gentle creatures. They are symbols of love, peace or one who brings a message. A dove is monogamous — a bird of tender and devoted affection. It is faithful for a lifetime. Often the low, cooing sound of a dove serves as mournful imagery of one who suffers.
The dove is mentioned about 50 times in the Bible and is the first bird to be mentioned in the Scriptures (Genesis). The most familiar dove imagery from the New Testament is recounted in all four of the Gospels (though in varying forms) with the Holy Spirit as a dove, descending on Jesus at his baptism. Art images of the Annunciation show the Holy Spirit as a dove, coming down toward Mary on beams of light.
In the fourth century, St. Basil makes mention of tabernacles, fashioned in the shape of “the eucharistic dove” suspended by chains hung above the altar. “And the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has robed Christ in honour.”
A tabernacle of this style is still in use today in the Bethany Chapel in the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Boston.
Take time this weekend to look around your church. It probably will not take you long to find the representation of a dove in the windows, art or sculptures. You may even find a rendering of the Holy Spirit (dove) with the head surrounded by a round halo, which represents holiness. Three rays indicate that the Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the blessed Trinity.
In doing research for this article, perhaps the most unusual information I came across as to why the dove is used as a Christian symbol for the Holy Spirit comes from Ireneaus in the second century. He states that “the number 801 is both the sum of the numeric values of the letters of the word ‘dove’ (in Greek) and the sum of the numeric values of the letters Alpha and Omega, which refers to Christ.” His discovery might lead one to the conclusion that possibly Ireneaus was either a mathematical savant, or a man with way too much time on his hands!
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.