I’ve been recommending widely a book I’ve read recently: Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue. It’s easy to read but has a wealth of new understanding and insight contained in its 10 chapters. Each chapter focuses on one bird that crops up in the Bible narrative – from the eagle to the vulture to the partridge to the sparrow – and finds new ways of understanding them symbolically. Reading it you may learn some things you were unaware of about the love life of the ostrich but, somewhat more importantly, you might also gain a new understanding of some of the love and life contained in the scripture.
Blue’s first chapter focuses on the pigeon. Not many people’s favourite bird. In fact one often described as a flying pest or a rat on wings, and one that is believed to be a blight on the urban landscape that should be exterminated rather than celebrated. Seemingly a far cry from the pure white dove that is one of the symbols the Bible gives us for the Holy Spirit. But, as the book reminds us, a dove is a pigeon – they are both members of the Columbidae family. In fact it was more likely to have been a common Palestinian rock dove rather than a white turtle dove that hovered over Jesus’ head at his baptism– and the grey rock dove with its iridescent green and purple neck is considered to be the ancestor of our common domestic pigeon.
With this change in our visualization the symbol for the Holy Spirit suddenly changes from something indicating purity and exclusiveness to something indicating commonality and ubiquity. Pigeons like to be where people are, they don’t discriminate between the ‘good’ areas and the ‘bad’ areas but crowd wherever life is to be found. That sounds like quite a good description of God too.
This is how Blue draws out the metaphor: “Maybe the spirit of God is so common – wherever life is, that we don’t recognize it or necessarily respect it … Maybe we don’t notice because we are looking for something pure and white, but the spirit of God is more complicated than that – fuller and richer and everywhere. Perhaps we’ve read the dove wrong – it is not as pure as the driven snow. Maybe we get a little hung up on purity. God after all created LIFE (everything, swarming and creeping, fruitful and multiplying). Maybe the Holy Spirit of God is more creative than puritan. Maybe we are mistaken about what holy means.” Consider the Birds – A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, p12.
This year I am choosing to see the presence of the Spirit of God in the common pigeons that peck at the dusty pavements, rather than in the white doves that coo in peaceful parks. When a flock of pigeons dance in the sky I will be reminded of the dance of the Spirit of God in all things. When I see pigeon poop all over buildings I will be reminded of the incarnation – that God became flesh in all its messy reality, not just the pure and proper bits. When the sun catches the iridescent colours on a pigeon’s neck I will be reminded of the beauty that God’s spirit brings to all her beloved daughters and sons, not just those who shine in the eyes of the world.