How is the Holy Spirit Like a Dove?

Christ’s baptism by St. John the Forerunner in the Jordan is narrated in all four Gospels.  One element of the telling of this event found in all four is the descent of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).  In each of these cases, the Spirit’s descent is compared to a dove.  Possibly because this comparison is conveyed in traditional Orthodox iconography through the depiction of a literal bird, it is often misunderstood.  The text is not meaning to convey that the Spirit turned into a bird or made some sort of bird manifestation.  In some less traditional iconography, the Spirit is even depicted as a bird in other generalized settings.  Two details, however, are here important.  First, it is the descent of the Spirit which is described as being like a dove, not his appearance.  “Dove-like” refers to the action or movement of the Spirit.  Second and most importantly, the baptism of Christ is not the first time in the Scriptures at which the movement of the Spirit in relation to water is compared to that of a bird.

In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit is described at the beginning of the creation of the world as moving over the waters.  The Hebrew verb used (rachaf) is used in the Piel binyan to refer to the action of a mother bird hovering over her young.  The Syriac cognate, as St. Basil the Great notes, refers to a bird brooding over eggs (cf. Deut 32:11).  The mode of the Spirit’s descent upon Christ as he emerges from the waters is therefore quite deliberate, pointing back to the beginning of creation.  In all four Gospels, Christ’s baptism represents the very beginning of his public ministry.  This, then, recasts the work of Christ, from the perspective of Theophany, as re-creation.  For St. Mark, this event is the beginning of the gospel (1:1).  The story of the victory of Christ, for St. Mark, is the story of a new round of divine creative action.  The Holy Trinity is manifest at the Theophany for the same reason that the Holy Trinity is manifest in the original creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2; John 1:1-3).  Creation is an act of the Triune God.

As discussed in a previous post, Genesis 1 does not cast creation over against a preceding nothingness.  Other Biblical texts describe creation ex nihilo in the sense in which Christians are used to thinking about it.  Rather, Genesis 1 describes creation as divine order over against chaos.  The earth, at the beginning of God’s creative action, is formless and empty, a watery abyss, an embodiment of chaos and death (1:2).  In response, in the first three days, God sets the earth in order, giving it structure.  In the second three days, he fills those structures with life.  Genesis 1 describes the defeat of chaos by Yahweh in terms not redolent of victory in battle.  This serves as a polemic over against comparable stories from the pagan world in which creation was the result of a lengthy struggle between divine beings of equal power.  No spiritual being is in Yahweh’s category.  But the language of Chaoskampf is applied to Yahweh and the creation of the world in Old Testament texts (eg. Ps 74:13-23; Is 27:1).  The language of creation and the language of gospel as the report of a victory, therefore, overlap in ancient cosmogony.  The language of the crushing of the dragon’s heads is interwoven into the language of Theophany vis a vis the waters.

After the creation of humanity, they are charged with participating in and continuing the work of the Triune God in creation.  Paradise has been ordered and filled with life, humanity is to leave Paradise, taking Eden with them, to fill the earth and subdue it, fill it with life and order it (Gen 1:28).  Ultimately, this would have led to humanity participating with Yahweh in his rest at the end of his labors.  Humanity, however, repeatedly chose, rather, to join with rebellious spiritual powers in their rejection of the divine order and of the Triune God.  Not only did humanity fail to transform the rest of the earth into Eden, but humanity was cast out of Paradise into this present world and through rebellion further corrupted it, spreading chaos, disorder, and death throughout it.  A new creation, then, represents a battle and a victory against the spiritual powers of chaos and death followed by a restructuring of the world and a filling of it with new life.  This is the ministry of Christ which begins with his baptism at Theophany.  Christ’s victory over the spiritual powers of sin and death will produce a new creation of justice and holiness.  Through the resurrection of the dead, this new heaven and new earth will be filled with unending life.

In Genesis 1, the watery abyss represents chaos, and the forces of chaos are represented by the sea and the river in Judea’s neighboring cosmogonies.  By sanctifying the waters through entering them bodily, Christ achieves the first victory over these forces at the core element of their perceived power and control.  This is not, however, the beginning of the new creation wrought by Christ’s earthly ministry.  For two centuries before the popular spread of the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, the feast of Theophany was a feast of the incarnation.  It is through the incarnation that the new creation begins with humanity itself.  When the second person of Yahweh was made man, he set human nature back in order and filled humanity with divine life.  It is in this sense that the hymns of Holy Theophany repeatedly speak of Adam’s renewal within the waters of the Jordan.  It was with Adam, with humanity, that the first work of creation went awry through rebellion.  It is in Christ, through fulfilling all the demands of justice, that creation is renewed beginning with humanity itself.

The purposes and consequences of this renewal are described in the sections of St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus that are read on the feast of Holy Theophany (2:11-14; 3:4-7).  These two sections are appropriate to this feast because both of these texts speak of the public appearance (lit. epiphany) of Jesus Christ as God and Savior in the world (2:11; 3:4).  St. Paul here speaks of the justification of human persons (3:7) within the context of purification (2:14).  This understanding of justification as a setting back in order and rededication is derived from common Aramaic usage (cf. Dan 8:14).  This justification is associated by St. Paul with baptism, specifically the washing with water and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Tit 3:5-6).  Baptism with water and the Spirit produce regeneration and renewal (v. 5).  It has the effect of making human persons heirs of eternal life (v. 7).

But justification through baptism is also not an end in itself.  St. Paul does not describe a collection of “saved” individuals.  Rather, he describes the purpose of Christ manifesting himself, establishing baptism and pouring out the Spirit as the creation of a special people (2:14).  Just as the assembly of Israel was created by God in the waters of the sea, so also the Church is created in the waters of baptism.  This people likewise has a purpose.  Rather than pursuing ungodliness, worldly desires and pleasures, and lawlessness, this people zealously pursues good works (v. 12, 14).  Humanity failed at the beginning to participate in and co-operate with the work of God in the world to establish order over chaos and fill the world with life.  This new humanity formed through the re-creation of Adam in Christ’s baptism is created to succeed where fallen humanity failed.

As a feast of the incarnation, Theophany reveals what it means to be authentically human and to live an authentic human life.  It means to begin again by being reborn and renewed in baptism.  It means to live a life of repentance, putting off the old humanity with its lusts and worldly desires, and being clothed upon with Christ himself.  Through repentance, our human person is set back in order and purified.  As a human person is set in order by the Spirit as a new creation, the creation around that person is itself transformed, put in order, and filled with life.  This happens through participation in what the Triune God is working in the world.  In Christ, God is reconciling all creation to himself (2 Cor 5:19).  Our participation in God’s work in the world further orders our selves and our lives and fills us with the life of God himself.  This life which fills us overflows to eternal life (John 4:13-14).

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Is there a better way we could be translating the part of the troparion that runs, “and the Spirit, *in the form of a dove*, confirmed the truthfulness of His word”?

    1. The translation ‘likeness of a dove’ is also often used in English. When dealing with poetry and hymnography though, the musical and rhythmic flow is just as important as the precision of the language. Nothing that matches both perfectly suggests itself to me.

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