- Written by Wendy Janzen Wendy Janzen
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Consider the... Pigeons!
As I was working on this sermon, I found myself a little bit confused. I couldn’t keep straight if I was supposed be writing about doves or pigeons. the passages that were read this morning all refer to doves. And yet, the title of today’s service is Consider the Pigeons! Strange… When we think of biblical birds, the dove probably is what comes to mind over the pigeon. Doves appear 35 times in the Bible if you read the NRSV; if you’re reading the NIV they’re mentioned 46 times. Pigeons are also mentioned in the Bible, but only 12 times. So, for now, I’m going to focus on the dove.
Ahhh, the Dove: a sweet, gentle bird that is the image of peace, innocence, beauty and love. For this reason, especially as the symbol of peace, Mennonites love doves! It suits our identity as a quiet, peace-loving people. Consider the fact that doves feature in both Mennonite Central Committee’s and Mennonite Church Canada’s logos.
I did a bit of research about these logos. MCC writes that the dove in their logo represents their deep commitment to peace, nonviolence, and compassion. Their original logo also featured a dove (along with a cross, wheat, and hands).
Mennonite Church Canada offers a more extensive explanation of their logo. They explain that the simple dove and olive branch reflect Jesus's life, baptism and ministry; the Holy Spirit; the biblical themes of creation, peace and hope; and the mission and values of Mennonite Church Canada. All of that, depicted by a dove!
Helmut Harder, who was the Executive Secretary of MCCanada at the time the logo was created, offers even more reflection on the rationale of using the image of a dove to represent who we are as a church. He writes:
A strength of the [dove] image for the new Mennonite Church is that it "touches down" at a number of places in our salvation history.
●It brings to mind Genesis 1 and the creation—the flood, and the dove returning with the olive branch—in other words, the biblical themes of hope and creation.
●It brings to mind the prophet's aspiration for a kingdom of peace. I think of Isaiah and Micah's visions.
● It brings to mind Jesus' baptism, where the dove appears with a voice from God affirming "this is my beloved Son."
●It brings to mind the experience of Pentecost, with the descent of the Holy Spirit, bringing the message of new life.
●It brings to mind the Anabaptist vision, with its theme of peace and renewal in the 16th century.
And, it points us to God and the Holy Spirit, extending to us an invitation to move forward with Christ and seek the kingdom, encouraging us to aspire to a new heaven and new earth. The image suggests to me the biblical pilgrimage, enveloping us with a reference to the past, present and future.
That’s a lot of symbolism in a bird! Now how many of you remember or pay attention to the fact that we, SJMC, also have a dove that features in our logo! I don’t know the story behind our logo, but can assume that the dove was included for similar reasons to why it was part of the logo for both MCC and MCCanada. The dove is simply a powerful and enduring symbol of peace, and we are a people who value peace.
Few symbols have traditions as long and rich as the dove. It is not only claimed and loved by Mennonites! In art and iconography is often represents some aspect of the divine. From ancient times throughout the world to modern times, the dove has developed layer upon layer of meaning and interpretive significance.
The dove, however, is not simply a symbol of peace. Often, when it is mentioned in the Bible, it is connected to the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the very beginning of the creation account of Genesis 1, the spirit of God hovers over the face of the deep. Ancient tradition suggests that it hovers “like a bird,” and some Bible translations specify that the bird is a dove, probably based on Jewish scholarship that draws from that traditional understanding.
The dove appears again in the story of Noah’s ark, at the end of the flood, as a messenger bringing news that the waters have receded. Tradition has it that when Mary was visited by the Holy Spirit at the time of the annunciation, it came in the form of a dove. The Gospel of Luke mentions that Mary and Joseph sacrificed two doves at the Temple following the birth of Jesus, as was prescribed in the law.
But perhaps the most familiar appearance of a dove in the Bible comes at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. All four gospel accounts report that after Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, the Spirit of God came down from heaven and descended on him “like a dove.”
So in the dove we find a strong image: A bird that represents the Holy Spirit hovering over the dark waters of creation; A bird that is a messenger of God; A bird that descends from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. It is seen as pure and holy. It was also the only type of bird acceptable for sacrifice, often used when people could not afford a mammal.
With doves holding such a strong symbolism in the Bible, it’s interesting that Debbie Blue who wrote Consider the Birds: A provocative guide to the birds of the Bible writes a chapter on pigeons instead of doves. She does this to get us thinking. She points out that a dove is, in fact, a pigeon by another name and that there are a great variety of birds we can interchangeably call either pigeons or doves. They are all part of the same Columbidae family of birds.
What happens when you think of all of these Biblical stories and images, and insert a pigeon for a dove? Is that a bit hard to absorb? The Spirit of God like a pigeon! Whereas doves are perceived as blessed or pure, pigeons are often thought of messy, ordinary, and annoying pests. But maybe it is helpful to shake our assumptions up a bit. What might we learn from considering the pigeon?
The pigeon is abundant, prolific even. It is not cutesy, polite, petite or pure. Perhaps likening the Holy Spirit to a pigeon might serve to provide us with a more robust view of the Spirit. Debbie Blue asks if it isn’t sort of limiting to imagine the spirit of God as something dainty and white. We are made of dirt, after all. We are full of bacteria. We are earthy. We need a Spirit that can handle us and our world.
The pigeons common in Palestine were rock doves – they were often referred to as feral pigeons. How’s that for a symbol of the Holy Spirit? A bird that is wild, yet prolific; a bird that at the same time as being feral, wants to be around people. Pigeons are where we are. They are in our cities and barns, in our plazas and in our derelict abandoned buildings. They won’t leave us alone!
Because of this, people are often not very fond of pigeons. Cities have tried countless ways of exterminating them, usually unsuccessfully. But what if the spirit of God descends like a flock of pigeons—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often despised? A bit tough and gritty, always around, hard to get rid of, abundant. Maybe the spirit of God is so common, like a pigeon, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it. The spirit of God is among us and we often don’t pay it any attention. In fact, we might even find it a bit annoying if we are honest.
Debbie Blue wonders if we don’t notice it because we’re looking for something white and pure, a rare beauty, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that—fuller and richer and everywhere.
This idea of the Holy Spirit being embodied by a pigeon is a bit disorienting, but at the same time somehow familiar. Jesus was the incarnation of God in bodily form. When Jesus came on the scene he disoriented a lot of people. He immediately violated the boundaries of the system that was in place to keep separate the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure, the holy and the unholy. Jesus touches everything. He’s God in the flesh, and yet he breaks the rules in so many ways. He and his flock of followers were probably seen as unwanted pests by the religious folks who wanted to keep things pure and orderly.
And so, if a bird were to symbolize the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, would it more likely be a mild-mannered, white, pure dove, or a ubiquitous, messy, determined and earthy pigeon? Probably a complex mix of of both, but we definitely need to guard against pacifying and purifying the Spirit too much.
The Holy Spirit enlivens, animates and empowers us. It inspires newness and emboldens us toward action. It is ever-present, with us in the ordinariness and messiness of our daily lives.
So, I invite you to consider the pigeon... a bird that is perhaps not so gentle, but reminds us of the robustness of the Spirit and that won’t leave you alone!