Back in the days of Noah, the heavens were opened and it rained for forty days and nights, and there was a flood. As you may remember, Noah and his family survived the deluge aboard an ark, onto which they packed all of the animals of the earth so that they might also survive and continue once the earth had been washed clean. On this ark, amongst the other animals and living things, was a dove. After the rain had stopped, after the wind had whipped up a foam on the flood and started to evaporate some of the excess water back into the sky, back behind the sluice gates of heaven, Noah decided it was time to find out whether there was, in fact, any chance of a new life on a washed-clean earth. He sent out birds to survey the scene; first a raven, which came up empty, then the dove, who first of all came up as empty as the raven, but who on her second flight of fancy found an olive twig, signs of food and fertile land beyond the floodwaters. I don’t know why Noah sent her out again, but he did, and the third time she did not return.
I don’t know why she didn’t come back; Noah guessed that she had found herself an island on which to build a nest and begin again, as he was getting ready to do – but why would she try that all alone? It makes little sense.
I wonder, instead, if the dove, exploring the clean, fresh air, so excited to be out of the ark and its staleness, spread her wings so far that she glimpsed the doors of heaven receding, closing on the deluge, swinging back into place in the dome of the sky, and at the last possible moment, when it was too late to turn back or change her mind, she slipped through the gap and found herself caught up into the heavens, the forerunner of folks like Elijah, a prophet of olive trees and new growth, new life, rewarded by her own assumption into heaven on chariots of condensed water instead of fire.
Imagine her delighted recognition when the heavens eventually opened up once more and she saw below her water, water washing clean and restoring the balance of creation; water cleansing the people and the covenant; water contained and used judiciously by God, not this time a deluge, but a baptism of living water and new life. She saw Jesus stand up out of the water like an olive tree stretching its branches towards the sky. She remembered the catch in her breath – she had almost fallen when she saw the olive tree after the flood, and knew that God had not forgotten them, and that life could, would after all begin again – and in her excitement, remembering, she once again stumbled and fell, and caught herself by the wings, and swooped and dove on the currents of the breath of God, falling like thunder from the open gates, arriving on a sprinkling of words, “This is my Son, my beloved.”
“The appearance of the symbolic dove has occasioned much speculation. Since Tertullian it has often been connected with Noah’s dove: the former dove announced deliverance from the flood, the latter dove deliverance from sins.” Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton & John Muddiman (eds) (Oxford University Press, 2001), p.851