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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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God's descending Spirit

When it captures us we are surprised, overtaken and overwhelmed

We have doves in our neighborhood. I've watched their descent. They don't flit about or zoom in for a landing. Instead, they spread their tail feathers in a wide fan and hover for an expectant moment before settling quietly onto a branch. A flock can descend on a tree without your knowing it.

Surely it wasn't the outline and color of a dove but this lightness — this expectant, hovering moment — that John the Baptist meant to convey when he spoke of the Spirit's descent onto Jesus as a dove from heaven (John 1:32-33).

Some of us want to see the Spirit as a dove, or perhaps a flame-like "tongue" above the disciples' heads, because as humans we are image-makers. Seeing, we suppose, is believing. Having seen a thing plainly, we feel we've gained a measure of control over it.

But no one can draw a picture of the Spirit. References to the Spirit in Scripture focus on symbolic images: water, light, breath, a dove and flames. Attempts to depict the Spirit in explicitly religious art tend to focus on these images. The more literal and exact such pictures are, they more they don't work.


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