Special guest reflection from the Rev. Jessica Schaap
God in the form of a bird is a striking image found in scripture from its opening words. In some English translations of Genesis 1:2, the writer says the Spirit of God “hovered” over the waters at creation. The Hebrew word translated as “hovered” is “rachaph” and it includes the sense of hovering, fluttering, brooding, and even fertilizing – verbs we might associate with birdlife. In John Milton’s famous poem “Paradise Lost” the poet invokes the Spirit present at Creation to help him with his creative work:
…thou from the
Wast present, and with mighty wings out-
Dovelike satest brooding on the vast Abyss
And madest it pregnant
Milton vividly images the Spirit at creation as bird. What’s more the image becomes clearer later in Scripture when a bird directly describes God’s self. In Deuteronomy 32: 11, God is an eagle (or vulture!) hovering over its young. The same Hebrew verb in Genesis 1:2 “rachaph” is found in Deuteronomy 32:11 to describe the action of God hovering over the “nest” of Israel saving and creating them as a people. This image is recalled in Isaiah 31:5 where the Lord “like birds hovering overhead” will protect, rescue, and deliver the people. The Spirit of God is active here in creation and redemption.
Perhaps the most striking instance of God taking the form of a bird is at Jesus’ baptism. In Luke 3:22, we hear “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.” In other scriptures, the dove is associated with salvation from the flood in Genesis, sacrifice in Leviticus, and love in the Song of Solomon. It may sound strange at first but the Spirit of God as bird reveals Godly character as consistently as the second person of the Trinity as a human does. In the baptism story, the Spiritdove, alongside the voice from Heaven and Jesus in the Jordan,is acting out of a unity, and, again, revealing the creating, redeeming, sanctifying nature of God.
In my own life, the practice of birding often draws me into a contemplative place where the Spirit seems very near. By venturing outside without expectation and observing closely the features, actions, variety, and lives of our bird neighbours, my imagination is set alight and I think there’s something of divinity in it. Over many years this love of birds has now nudged me to re-examine the scriptures and the Christian tradition to glean new insights into the nature of the Spirit that I hope are faithful and helpful for the times we are in.