Sunday, January 11, 2009

The descent of the dove

This is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on which Our Lord was baptized by St. John in the waters of the Jordan, the day on which a dove descended on His head, the day on which a voice spoke from heaven saying This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased. Remember that imagery of the dove. Like everything else in the Gospels, it is there for a reason. Here are St. Augustine's ruminations on what that reason might be.

For this reason was charity betokened by the Dove which descended upon the Lord. That likeness of a dove, the likeness in which came the Holy Ghost, by whom charity should be shed forth into us: wherefore was this? The dove has no gall: yet with beak and wings she fights for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. ....See here, brethren, a great lesson, a great rule: each one of you has children, or wishes to have; or if he has altogether determined to have no children after the flesh, at least spiritually he desires to have children:— what father does not correct his son? what son does not his father discipline? And yet he seems to be fierce with him. It is the fierceness of love, the fierceness of charity: a sort of fierceness without gall after the manner of the dove, not of the raven.

These lines are from the "Sermons on the First Letter of John", 7:10. This is the same sermon, incidentally where St. Augustine writes the often-quoted words: Love, and do as you wish. People often quote that, but equally often fail to look into the context in which it was said- a context which many today would find unappealing, specifically defending the use of coercion, by the Church and the State, when it is genuinely done out of love, for the good of the person being coerced. I'm much more sympathetic to that point of view than modern liberals, though by the same token more cautious of its dangers and limitations than St. Augustine. (And for good reason- we have sixteen centuries more experience with the dangers that can accompany coercion in the name of love, if it's not tempered with mercy.) But that aside- I don't want to turn this into a political post, and I have to get back to work anyway. But just think about this: the man who wrote such timeless and beautiful prose intended them for one context, but we in a completely different context, separated by sixteen centuries, can still find them speaking to us today. Augustine wasn't right about everything he said, by a long shot, but he was right about this: and when he wrote these words, the Spirit was showing herself* forth through him, just as she showed herself through the descent of the dove.

*The Holy Spirit is a feminine noun in Hebrew and Aramaic; when Jesus spoke of the promised Paraclete, he did so in the feminine. Unfortunately, this nuance was lost when the New Testament was written, as Spiritus Sanctus is masculine in Latin and, I believe, in Greek. But it's clear from reading this sermon that when St. Augustine compared the Spirit to a dove, he did so specifically to a mother dove, i.e. a female dove. The Spirit represents, among other things, the feminine side of the Divine, as God the Father represents the masculine.

1 comment:

Renegade Eye said...

I have no comment about your religious beliefs.

I enjoyed your Venezuela posts.


Regards.