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The Holy Pigeon

2009 May 30
by Gordon Reid


The only Limerick I know in French is this one about the young atheist:

“Il y avait un jeune homme de Dijon

Qui n’aimait du tout la religon.

Il dit: “Eh ma foi;

Je deteste tous les trois,

Le Pere, et le Fils, et le Pigeon”.

which, roughly tranlated, is:

There was a young man of Dijon

Who had no time at all for religon.

He said: “As for me,

I detest all the three,

The Father, the Son and the Pigeon”.

My mind has always been a “picker up of unconsidered trifles” and that limerick is one of them. I suppose it stuck because,when I heard is as a youth, I found it funny, then realized it might be slightly blasphemous; then thought “Oh, I’ve laughed at a blasphemy”; then, “Oh damn, now I’ll have to go to Confession; then: “Wow, now I’ll have to confess to swearing”! But I’m glad to say, such scrupulosity hardly ever occurred to me, and I probably just laughed again and rushed to recite it to a more shockable friend.

And it made me think that perhaps a pigeon (or dove) or any bird is not the most attractive metaphor for God the Holy Spirit. What is behind it?

Well, it makes its first appearance in Genesis, in the account of creation, where God broods over the face of the waters like a mother bird brooding over her eggs until her warmth hatches them out. And in the Psalms we have several references to God as a bird: “He shall defend thee under his wings, and thou shalt be safe under his feathers”.

In the account of the Baptism of Jesus, the Spirit of God came down in the shape of a dove, and I am sure that this picture was meant to recall the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the waters at Creation, as much as to say that in the Baptism of Jesus, a new creation was coming into being.

At Pentecost, the Spirit’s presence was made known to the Apostles in a way that suggested wind and fire, and most people find that a much better metaphor for the dynamic life of God, who is the Spirit. The dry bones of the House of Israel were seen by the prophet to be brought back to life when the breath of the Spirit filled them, and the idea of a cleansing fire, sweeping away all dry undergrowth and promoting new green shoots of life, was one that also pointed to God giving new life at Pentecost.

In the end, no metaphor will do for God who is infinite, omnipotent, all-loving; even Father and Son and Holy Spirit are not total descriptions of the divine Persons. They are just the best we can do for now, till one day “we know as we are ¬†known”.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. fragrantgrass permalink
    May 31, 2009

    I remember this bit of blasphemous whimsy from a sermon you gave at All Saints in Milan (and its transmission can take on a new life, now that you’ve posted it online!). Perhaps no metaphor will do, but it’s wonderful how we try all the same. Thanks for the interesting post :)

    • June 1, 2009

      Dear Affra, I’m thrilled that anyone ever remembers anything i’ve ever said in the pulpit! Thank you.

  2. Nathaniel permalink
    June 1, 2009

    It’s like the supposed paraclete/parakeet slip in English, too.

  3. June 1, 2009

    I thought “pigeon” was enough of a wow factor without straying into parakeets!

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