Many people, even those who are lifelong Christians, are surprised to hear that the trinity is not in scripture. We have it in our creeds, our confessions, our catechisms, look out in the Narthex and you’ll see it represented on the stained glass depictions on the confessional banners, but at no point do Jesus, Paul, or any other apostles stop amidst their theological teachings and lay out the spiritual math equation of 1 Creator + 1 Savior Jesus + 1 Holy Spirit = 1 God. Christian teaching is one of very few places you will be taught that 3 = 1.
I know I’ve struggled with this understanding, especially in the Old Testament when there is so much language simply referring to God as “Lord.” For much of the Bible you only have one aspect referred to at any given time. It’s always struck me like one of those movie tropes where you only realize people are twins once you get them in the same room. But here, in this story we have the big three all together in one place: Parent, Child, Spirit; Father Son, Holy Ghost; or my favorite, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Here also we we have the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is perhaps one of those most common ways that the Holy Spirit is depicted. If you look out in the Narthex, both the Nicene Creed and the Brief Statement of Faith banners feature a dove as a depiction of the Holy Spirit. The imagery of the Holy Spirit as dove is so foundational to our specific tradition that we feature it prominently in the Presbyterian cross.
If you’re as intrigued by the symbols of the Bible as I am, “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue is a really interesting read. The book highlights the role various birds play in the Biblical narratives as well as other layers of historical secular meanings. One of the ways that the dove as Holy Spirit is described is as the creative catalyst, the initiator. Blue writes, “In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art throughout the centuries has depicted this hovering presence…as a dove… Once we get to the baptism of Jesus the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus’ shoulder and a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son… with whom I am well pleased.’ “
This often used symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, is nowhere nearly as common in scripture, this symbol of the Holy Spirit explicitly as a dove is only actually present in our particular text today, in verse 16: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
Now I have a bit of a linguistic confession to make. Without being hyperbolic, I think I can honestly say I’ve read this passage at least 100 times. And every time previous to very recently I read “alighting” as some derivation of the word “lighting.” Now, being that we’ve been focusing on being “held by the promised light” all throughout Advent, it really comes as no big surprise that light is on my mind. But this word carries two meanings, one, the one I had originally thought, is a poetic way of going about saying something was set aflame. This is how I pictured the dovelike presence, not with the soft politeness one might typically see from a dove, but coming down to earth in a blaze of Pentecostal glory.
Turns out, when you dig around a bit in other translations and in the Greek, the real definition of “alighting” here is, “to descend and settle.” This evokes images of a crisp tree in autumn falling on green grass, a butterfly on a flower, or a pigeon on a park statue. Not quite as intense as I thought.
Still, there is power in this alighting. At Jesus’ baptism we have the convergence of God the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. In this moment Jesus is named as God’s beloved child and Jesus’ ministry begins.
And where does he go from here? Does he have an internship at the office of a minor deity or perhaps an apprenticeship so he can learn the family trade of divinity? No, there’s no easy resting for him, once these words come to him he goes out into the wilderness,
automatically thrown into the most difficult of tests. And if being in the wilderness isn’t hard enough he is forced into a battle of wits and temptation with the devil. From there, from the wilderness place, he goes out to perform miracles, challenge the status quo, and teach a new way of living. The beginning of his career serving as a preview of the way his life on earth would end: death, hell, and then resurrection. He goes through the worst the devil has to offer, bearing the brunt of sin for us.
Debbie Blue writes of the symbolic significance: “Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized. Baptism is a symbol of death and renewed life. It’s a bold statement to begin with. God’s don’t generally die. – nor would they stoop to be baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary. To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. “
In baptism we acknowledge the grace through which God claims us as God’s beloved. We acknowledge our inclusion in the family of God, function as the body of Christ, and enlivenment by the Holy Spirit. In baptism the spirit of God calls out new life from the muck of our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.