As we begin yet another year, we can’t be any more certain what it holds than any that have come before. In early 2020 we could never have imagined the difficulties we’re even now working through. In 2023 darkness still seems to hover over us – inflation, recession, unemployment, division, family breakup, war and threats of further pestilence are all still with us.
When tempted to despair about the darkness of the coming year, we can remind ourselves of the season of new light after Christmas. The season is called Epiphany, meaning manifestation or appearance.
Epiphany is usually associated in the Western Church with the story of the Magi’s visit to the house of Jesus. In the Eastern Church the stories of Jesus’ baptism and His first public miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana are often liturgically highlighted.
Each story points to who Jesus is, whether it’s the desire of the nations (Magi), the beloved divine Son of God (baptism) or the Lord over all creation (Cana). All three stories shed special revelatory light on Jesus, and therefore all three are stories of epiphany.
While there are delightful details in all these accounts, I want to focus on Jesus’ baptism. All four Gospel writers record Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3; Mark 1; Luke 3; John 1) and all mention a detail pregnant with theological meaning – the descent of the Spirit in the form or manner of a dove upon Jesus.
Biblical scholars don’t fully agree whether what people saw was a dovelike form (looked like a dove) or something else descending in a dovelike manner (moved like a dove), but deciding doesn’t matter much once we realize the significance of the dove in biblical history.
Why a dove? The Spirit’s descent as a dove is almost certainly connected to the appearance of doves in the Hebrew Scriptures. Doves were allowed as a sacrifice offering. Joseph and Mary offer doves as a sacrifice upon Jesus’ birth (com pare Leviticus 5:7 and Luke 2:24).
As we mourn loss and pain, let us cry out to that same Spirit who descended on Jesus.
A more memorable appearance of doves is in the story of Noah. After spending many dark and isolated months waiting for flood waters to subside, Noah sends out a dove three times to search for a place to land (Genesis 8). First the dove hovers over the surface of the water but, weary from nonstop flying, returns to the ark. The second time the dove returns with an olive branch – a sign of new life! The third time the dove doesn’t return. Where it ended up no one knows.
The portrayal of the dove in the Noah story is almost certainly an echo of the appearance of the Spirit of God in the creation account. Although not specifically designated a dove, the Spirit is pictured as hovering – a Hebrew term typically associated with birds – over the surface of the deep (Genesis 1:2). Curious, isn’t it?
Intriguingly, the unresting Spirit- dove of Creation and Flood does not find rest in the remaining Old Testament accounts. Indeed, the prophets more often speak of doves in terms of lament, mentioning their mournful cries (Isaiah 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16; Nahum 2:7) – some thing our world, with no respite in sight, can identify with.
The dove reappears early in the New Testament. All the evangelists speak of the Spirit as a dove descending on Jesus as He emerges from the waters of baptism. Matthew insists the dove "alights" on Jesus (Matthew 3:16), while John poignantly proclaims the dove descends and "remains" on Him (John 1:32).
After millennia of hovering the Spirit-dove finally and definitively descends, alights and rests upon Jesus of Nazareth – the long-desired, long sought-after fulfilment of the entire Old Testament’s prophecy and hope.
Of course Christians are not immune from the depression of worldly darkness. Yet as we mourn loss and pain, let us cry out to that same Spirit who descended on Jesus, asking the Spirit to empower us so we can hopefully and confidently repeat the words of John, "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it" (John 1:5).
Despite the reality of the darkness, we take comfort in the Light that has come into the world – none other than the Jesus we follow. It is in Jesus that God’s Spirit rests, and it is only as we rest and abide in Jesus that we too can partake of the all-powerful, all-comforting, all-enlivening Holy Spirit.
There is no shortage of darkness, but praise God the Light of Jesus can’t be overcome by it.
Author: is executive vice-president and resident theologian of the EFC. Effective Jan. 31, 2023, Guretzki will become the EFC’s CEO and president. Dove photo by Gabriel Almanzar.David Guretzki