In the Gospel account for this Sunday’s Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we hear the following words immediately after John baptized Jesus in the Jordan:
On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. (Mark 1:10)
The symbol of the dove is very interesting, and it has been interpreted in various ways throughout the history of the Church, especially by the Church Fathers (those who wrote much closer to the time of the life of Jesus). One summary from a modern commentary describes the symbol of the dove in this way:
The Fathers usually interpret the dove as a symbol of peace and reconciliation between God and men. It first appears in the account of the flood (Gen 8:10–11) as a sign that God’s punishment of mankind has come to an end. Its presence at the beginning of Christ’s public ministry symbolizes the peace and reconciliation he will bring. –Saint Mark’s Gospel , The Navarre Bible (Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005), 53–54.
Another explanation can be found in the writings of St. Bede the Venerable, who comments on the nature of the dove and how it applies to how we should live in imitation of Christ whose life we share through Baptism:
The image of a dove is placed before us by God so that we may learn the simplicity favored by him. So let us meditate on the nature of the dove, that from each one of its features of innocence we may learn the principles of a more becoming life. The dove is a stranger to malice. So may all bitterness, anger and indignation be taken away from us, together with all malice. The dove injures nothing with its mouth or talons, nor does it nourish itself or its young on tiny mice or grubs, as do almost all smaller birds. Let us see that our teeth are not weapons and arrows. -St. Bede the Venerable, Homilies on the Gospels
A final interesting interpretation concerns the numbers associated with the Greek letters for the dove. The following summary expresses the view proposed by St. Irenaeus:
One possible reason for the use of the word ‘dove’ to describe how the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus has to do with gematria – the assignment of numerical equivalents to letters. The letters of this word, ‘dove’ in Greek form the numerical sum of 801. 801 is also the numerical sum of the Greek letters alpha and omega. Therefore the description of the dove could mean that the one on whom the dove descends was the Alpha and the Omega – an identification the Bible ascribes to Jesus (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13) -Michael S. Heiser article in Bible Study Magazine, Nov / Dec 2017, 9
Is there one absolutely correct way of understanding the symbol of the dove? Probably not, but what they all have in common is that they all point to Christ. As we come to the end of the Christmas Season, let us pray that when people study our lives, they will see that everything that we say and do points to Christ and reflects the gift of His life that He has given to us through the sacraments.