The Holy Spirit Descended Like a Pigeon

“Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a pigeon…”

It just doesn’t sound right, does it?

The Holy Spirit descended like a dove, not a pigeon.

Doves are pretty. Pigeons are ugly.
Doves symbolize peace. Pigeons are pests.
Doves make great logos for churches, chocolate, and soap. Pigeons are “flying rats.”

But the Greek word used here is peristera, and while your Biblical dictionaries and lexicons will emphasize dove, they concede that it can also mean pigeon (as in Luke 2:24).

When you look up the term in the noble-sounding “A Glossary of Greek Birds” by the even more noble-sounding D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, you will find an entry detailing Aristotle’s catalog of pigeon varieties.

During a quest to better understand his urban wilderness, journalist Nathanael Johnson dug into the story pigeons and made some interesting discoveries.

Pigeons were originally domesticated and kept by the upper class who exchanged them as gifts. Romans not only brought the species all over Europe, but space was built into traditional Roman houses for the family pigeons.

As the population of pigeons exploded, they became less exclusive, and the upper class abandoned the bird. It was around this time that the terms “dove” and “pigeon” began to take on the distinctive connotations they have today.

Pigeons then found natural habitats in urban areas. Cities provided lots of ledges on which to perch and plenty of garbage for food. Soon, building owners and architects began to implement techniques like spikes and netting to keep them away. However, this only concentrated the birds, increasing the spread of disease.

Another common feature of the urban pigeon is disfigured feet. Johnson learned that because pigeons shuffle instead of hop, their feet pick up human hair, string, and other unnatural fibers that can tangle tightly. If the birds are unable to free themselves, they can easily lose a toe or an entire foot.

Notice a theme? The overpopulation, the disease, the garbage eating, and the missing toes are all human-related. A once regal and revered bird is now considered a disgusting pest due in large part to our influence.

And that makes me wonder if there isn’t something to the Holy Spirit descending like a pigeon. How many times has the beauty of God, the identity of Jesus, or the good news of the Gospel been distorted and even rejected because of what we have done to it?

Perhaps the next time you read or teach Jesus’ baptism, you could describe the Holy Spirit descending as a pigeon to remind us of the responsibility we have as stewards of the Gospel.

H/T – Johnson writes about the pigeon in Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, which I discovered through the 99% Invisible podcast.

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