The Earth Awaits – Dennis Ormseth reflects on Creation itself participating when the Spirit descends in bodily form as a dove.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As with the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B of the Lectionary, the baptism of Jesus in year C reverberates with creational and cosmic accents. In the first lesson, we are reminded that the God who speaks from the opened heaven is one who renews the people God created for Godself, gathering them from the four directions of the earth (Isaiah 43:5-7) and leading them through water and fire. Psalm 29, appointed for all three years, evokes the power of God’s voice “over mighty waters” and the “cedars of Lebanon’” the voice that “flashes forth flames of fire” and “shakes the wilderness, ”causing“ the oaks to whirl and strip[ping] the forest bare” (Isaiah 29:3-9). With the descent of the Spirit the first day of creation is again brought to mind, when the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
It is the “Holy Spirit descend[ing] in bodily form like a dove” that most demands our attention here, however. As David Tiede points out, Luke presents Jesus’ baptism as the “acclamation and anointing of the true king of Israel. Luke’s account of Peter’s speech before Cornelius offers the best commentary: ‘beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power’ (Acts 10:37-38). . .The presence of the Holy Spirit is best understood as the authorization of divine kingship.” As Tiede puts it, “God’s word to Jesus confirms the promise of divine dominion in Israel made to David and his heirs. Jesus is the one of whom God had spoken to David: ‘I will raise up your offspring after you. . . . and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he shall be my son’” (2 Sam. 7:12-16) (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988: p. 94, 95). Luke Timothy Johnson agrees: compared with the other Gospels, he observes, Luke’s baptismal narrative gives “narrative expression to an essentially interior transformation or confirmation.” The event is structurally very similar to that of the annunciation, he notes: “In the annunciation, the Spirit comes down and the child will be called son of God; furthermore, the power will ‘overshadow” Mary’–the word, we saw, recalled the ‘hovering’ in passages such as Ps 90:4 (LXX). In the angelic song, we find the heavens open, and the declaration of people to people ‘of God’s favor’–the same word used here of Jesus” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota; The Liturgical Press, 1991: p. 71).
Why then does Luke place “rather heavy emphasis on the physical manifestation of the Spirit,” as Johnson observes he does? Although Luke omits Mark and Matthew’s “he saw” (Mark 1:10 and Matthew 3:16), he nonetheless emphasizes the physical reality of the “bodily form like a dove” or “physical shape of a dove,” as Johnson prefers to translate the verse. In the baptism, Johnson suggests, “the dove is perhaps ‘the “hovering’ symbol that enables the reader’s imagination to pull these elements into a single focus.” Like the wind and tongues of fire later in Luke’s Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-4), Johnson concludes, the dove provides “physical manifestation of the Spirit” (Johnson, pp. 69, 71). In any case, as Tiede notes, the “descent of the Holy Spirit in bodily form has thus become a visible sign confirming Jesus’ identity and role as fulfilling and surpassing God’s rule in Davidic kingship.”
Creation itself thus participates as the God of Creation identifies and claims for Godself the beloved one who will serve God in saving all creation. And although Johnson discounts its significance as scriptural precedent for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ baptism, the dove of course also inevitably recalls for us the story of Noah and the ark from Genesis 8. How else might one explain the church’s enduring association of the dove with the Spirit’s redeeming presence on Earth? Warren Carter points out in his commentary on the baptism narrative in Matthew that “since Homer (Odyssey 12.62) the dove has been identified as Zeus’s servant who represents divine presence and love and conveys Zeus’s messages.” Luke’s interest in creating “surpassing” narratives in competition with pagan emperors—an important motif in the birth narrative—might explain his emphasis here on the bodily form of the dove –a real dove, in other words, not just a metaphorical one. But Carter suggests an alternative interpretation: “in contrast to such claims,” he writes, the “dove is linked with the Spirit which empowers Jesus, God’s beloved child, as God’s commissioned agent,” because “God is beginning a whole new world, an alternative way of life, because the present structures of Rome’s empire allied with Israel’s social and religious elite are not what God intends. God will complete God’s salvation in the yet-future return of Jesus to establish God’s empire in full” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000: p. 103). Might not Jesus “surpass” David’s kingship, in Luke’s mind, precisely in laying hold of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” the covenant God established when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16)? Indeed, the repetition this Sunday of a portion of the Advent narrative of John’s the Baptist’s preaching serves to remind us that, for Luke, Jesus is “more powerful” than John precisely in baptizing with the Holy Spirit, and that he comes, as we put it, as a farmer with winnowing fork in hand to enlist wind and fire in preparation of grains for both harvest feast and new planting of seed—as the prophet had written, “the holy seed is [the tree’s] stump” (Isaiah 6:13). Water is already at hand, available from “the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3) and the Jordan river for the baptism of repentance; with the wind and fire brought by this farmer, new earth lies ready to be dug from the threshing floor. The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered and all the earth awaits the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (see my Comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent).
A dove out scouting a new shoot is, we think, very much at home in this evangelist’s imagination.
Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2013.