First Sunday After the Epiphany
Year B, RCL
North Fork Ministries
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Since the writer of Luke’s gospel chose to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit in the bodily form of a dove, the dove has been Christianity’s most persistent symbolic representation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. As a teenager, growing up in the Cross Timbers section of Texas, I really hadn’t given dove, either the feathered kind, or the kind that stood in for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, a great deal of thought. However, in that part of Texas, the autumn pursuit of this tiny bird was so widespread and so passionate, that thousands of acres of land across the county were planted in sunflowers, just to attract them. And grown men would annually arm themselves with enough firepower to bring down buffalo in order to kill a bird that weighs little more than the buckshot that riddles their little bodies after a well-aimed shotgun blast.
My Dad was a fisherman, not a hunter, and so I had managed to ignore the pursuit of the dove until, like many a teenage boy, the pursuit of a teenage girl, suddenly inspired my interest in bird hunting. It seems that this particular high school majorette’s father and her older brother were serious dove hunters and if I were to date the family’s daughter, I was expected to be one too.
And so, armed with an extra shotgun they pulled from the gun case, and the uncertain knowledge of how to use it, we band of hunters drove to a wooded area on the outskirts of town, walked to a place where the Post Oak trees ended and the sunflower fields began, and the hunting party spread out.
Like I said, I didn’t know a lot about hunting dove, but still I was eager to show my prowess as a hunter, or at least a suitable suitor, and when a bird I took to be a dove flew overhead I raised my shotgun, aimed quickly, and fired. To my surprise the bird descended from the sky and landed on the hard ground in front of me with something less than a resounding thud. I picked up the now limp creature and dropped it into the canvas game bag hanging at my side.
I’ll admit, I had some uncertainty about the quality of my prey. It seemed awfully small, but I had encountered dove at the dinner table, and on a plate a dove seems composed of mostly tiny bones and a few mouthfuls of flesh. But this bird seemed especially small, even for a dove.
I wandered, in and out of the woods, for an hour or so more, occasionally hearing a shotgun blast and imagining that my fellow hunters were filling their bags with game. I heard a rustling in the dry leaves behind me and turned to encounter Steve, the best friend of the majorette’s brother, home from college. “Hey, Joslin. Any luck?” he asked.
I told him of my one bird and he told me of his two and then he said, “Why don’t you take these. I’m done for the day.” “Sure, thanks” I said, as I opened the clasp and lifted the flap of my game bag. The magnitude of my shooting error was revealed in Steve’s face as he peered in my bag to drop his two dove inside. He smiled and said quietly, “You might want to lose that one.” Seeing Steve’s plump grey birds lying beside my scrawny brown bird was all the evidence I needed to convince me that my prey had been a Meadowlark, the bird we knew as a Killdeer, named for the sound it made from it’s usual perch atop telephone wires.
Now Steve was aware that if at the end of the hunting day I had emptied my game bag, and presented a solitary Killdeer as my contribution to the family feast planned for the evening, not only would my chances with the majorette have ended, I would have had to leave town. As so Steve, wiser and kinder than his years would reveal, said, “Just show them these two dove and don’t mention you saw me.”
Steve’s real gift wasn’t the present of two newly-killed dove. The gift he gave me was my pride, the fragilely held dignity of a 17-year-old boy. And the encounter that autumn afternoon causes me to wonder that if the Holy Spirit can take the form of a dove, then perhaps its not too far fetched to imagine that the Holy Spirit can also move through the hearts and hands of teenage hunters, home from college. How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit, except through that which through that which is good and kind and just? I had done nothing to merit the exceptional consideration of the slightly older young man in the woods. Just as we, when we encounter compassion and generosity, usually don’t deserve it. The Holy Spirit moves where she will, taking whatever form she might. If we wait for the heavens to open and a dove to appear, our encounters with holiness are likely to be few. But if we look for the holy in all of creation, we may find that the Spirit abounds.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation’s best-known leader, often passionately urged his listeners to “Remember your baptism!” You may or may not be able to actually remember the day on which you were baptized, but we can recall the spiritual significance of the day – a day on which we were marked as Christ’s own forever.
Luther said, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” Luther was asking us to remember, every day, just who we are, and who we belong to, and just how beloved we are. We are to remember that we, as the Christ was, were baptized by the Holy Spirit, and we, like the Christ, are beloved as well.
A central spiritual practice of Sufism, the mystical tradition within the Islamic faith is the notion of “remembrance”. Remembrance is a tool that allows us at all times to realize our connection with God, and to recognize that we’re also connected at all times to every other person and living thing. For example, imagine that you are at a park and you see kids playing soccer and their parents standing around chatting, or you see a cluster of strangers walking along the beach, or landscapers blowing leaves into a pile, or dogs chasing thrown sticks. It is possible to see yourself as completely disconnected, separate from these creatures and events. But it is also possible, through the practice of remembrance, to recognize that everything you see in the park emerged from the same primal energy, that we are all part of God’s creation, that we are all one.
Remembrance of our baptism accomplishes the same purpose. It provides us with an opportunity to recall that we are God’s children and that as God’s “beloved” and that God is “well pleased” – takes pleasure - in us as well. And it is the Holy Spirit, in whatever form she descends, that brings that recognition of God’s love for us to the blessed light of consciousness.