We all have been thrilled if we’ve watched people let groups of doves fly into the sky to mark some special personal occasion like a big birthday or a special rite of passage. Sometimes these white flyers have been part of a celebration of a life that has ended.
Anyone who has read or heard stories from the Judeo-Christian Bible know that doves have played important and pivotal roles in both those faith communities. In the story of the Flood, we are told that Noah heeded warnings of the coming deluge, built his ark onto which he herded pairs of many animals needed for whatever community awaited them should they survive. We also know that Noah had no idea of when it would be safe to leave the ark, since when it stopped raining it might well still too dangerous to abandon his safe craft. But God knew and chose a way to tell Noah and his family using a fool-proof device. He got a single dove to fly to the ark holding a fresh olive branch in its beak. When Noah saw the dove light somewhere on deck or maybe on a low masthead, he saw how dry the olive branch was. This was the signal that land ahead was safe for the Noahs and their menagerie to put down anchor and disembark. So that dove was the messenger from the Lord who rewarded Noah for being prudent and for heeding warnings.
In the Christian Bible, in the Gospel according to Matthew, we learn about Jesus of Nazareth’s traveling from Galilee to the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized by John who was doing lots of dunking of new believers. When he comes up out of the water, it seems the sky opened up and Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down as a lone dove. This time the bird landed on Jesus and then a voice said “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” Once again, the deity relied on a dove to be his messenger.
Both these stories flashed into my mind when I saw, shortly after Francis was made Pope, the photograph that went viral on the Internet (seen here). The expression of sheer delight on Francis’ face touched me, since he of all people would also be remembering just how important this particular bird has been in the faith he inherits and practices.
Because I love stories and take them to be perhaps our most profound way to find truth, I thought “The deity is once again sending down a white bird to light on this ecstatic man’s hand as a sign to those who want to see it that this person finds favor with a caring force in the universe.” So we might be wise to pay attention to what Francis says and does, I thought, just as he surely is paying attention to this visitation as a call to right action.