The Peace Dove

Dan Clendenin
7 min readMay 12, 2024


By Dan Clendenin

From Our Archives

Debie Thomas, When You Send Forth Your Spirit (2021); Debie Thomas, When the Spirit Comes (2018); and Debie Thomas, Against Christianese: Pentecost Sunday (2015).

For Sunday May 19, 2024
Pentecost Sunday

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Acts 2:1–21 or Ezekiel 37:1–14
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Romans 8:22–27 or Acts 2:1–21
John 15:26–27; 16:4b–15

This Week’s Essay

I once told a film critic that when I watch a movie, I listen for a single sentence that captures the entire film. “I do the same thing,” said Scott, “but I look for an image.” We Christians are people of the Book who worship the Word made flesh. It took a while, but Christians also became people of images, and in those images we’ve expressed our faith as much as in words.

In his marvelous book Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Jeffrey Spier explains how the early Jesus movement first expressed itself in visual forms. Art and architecture flourished in classical Greece and Rome, of course, but we Christians were slow to express our faith pictorially. In fact, says Spier,”no churches, decorated tombs, nor indeed Christian works of art of any kind datable before the third century are known.” This might have been because the earliest Christians were a persecuted and illicit sect comprised largely of people from lower socio-economic classes. They also inherited Judaism’s ambivalence toward art rooted in the prohibition against graven images in Exodus 20:4.

Catacomb fresco of two doves, vase, palm branches.

But around the year 200, “purely Christian images began to appear.” The forty catacombs in and around Rome, along with the discovery of a house church at Dura Europos in Syria dated to 240 AD, show how the earliest Christian art was not merely decorative but intentionally devotional; its purpose was not “objective beauty” but an “expression of faith.” In the first decades of the third century, genuine Christian art appears on seal rings, tombs, clay lamps, engraved gems, and in one instance a marble statuette. A hundred years after that, Christian art adorned belt buckles and Bible covers, plates and coins, intricate mosaics and ornate crosses.

Just as Christians portrayed Jesus as a shepherd, fish, anchor, or a lamb, the five images in this essay illustrate how the Holy Spirit was represented by a dove. The symbolism of the dove hearkens back to when Noah sent a dove out from the ark to see if the flood waters had receded. When the dove returned, “there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf” (Genesis 8:11). At last, peace and safety for the whole earth! In all three synoptic gospels, when John baptized Jesus, the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. The illuminated Rabbula Gospel from the sixth century (see below), like thousands of similar images thereafter, reminds us that Pentecost celebrates the descent of the dove and the peace of God’s Spirit for all the world.

Is there anything we need more today in our violent world? Peace in Palestine, peace in Ukraine, peace in Sudan, and around the world.

The earliest Christian writers didn’t say much about art and images, and Spier believes that their hostility toward visual representations has been exaggerated. Most early Christian art drew upon well-known Bible texts like Noah, Daniel in the lion’s den, Moses, Jonah, Adam and Eve, and Abraham. In perhaps the earliest textual reference to Christian art, Clement of Alexandria (150–215) wrote that Christians could also borrow pagan symbols as long as they were appropriate. Swords and bows would be inappropriate, he said, because they signaled war and violence, but a dove was suitable, said Clement, “since we follow peace.”

Truly “pentecostal” believers are people of peace. “Seek peace and pursue it,” wrote the ancient psalmist (Psalm 34:14). “Make every effort to live in peace with all people,” says Hebrews 12:14. “Make every effort to do what leads to peace,” wrote Paul (Romans 14:19). As followers of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) and the “Lord of peace,” we wish every person “peace at all times and in every way” (1 Thessalonians 3:16). “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:9).

There’s a fascinating commentary about the work of the Spirit in the life of Israel’s first king, Saul. We read in 1 Samuel 10:6 that when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul, “he was changed into another person.” This Pentecost I’m praying the Peace Prayer ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). It captures the radical “change into another person” for which I pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

We don’t know the actual author of this famous prayer, and it was not until the 1920s that it was even ascribed to Saint Francis. By one account the prayer was found in 1915 in Normandy, written on the back of a card of Saint Francis. But it certainly expresses his longing to be an instrument of peace in our violent world.

The second sentence of the Bible reads that the primordial soup of pre-creation was tohu wa-bohu — a formless or unformed waste. A shapeless, futile and empty void. Darkness and desolation covered the watery deep. Things were chaotic. But then a “great wind” (ruach elohim) blew over the waters. The simplest way to read this is a “strong and stormy wind,” but interpreters have never been able to resist the translation that the ruach elohim is the very wind, breath, or Spirit of the living God.

Pentecost, the Rabbula Gospel, c. 586, illuminated Syriac Bible.

Like a dove, or a tender and protective mother, God’s Spirit hovers, broods, or flutters over the watery chaos. This word rachaph is used only two other times in the Hebrew Old Testament, both in Deuteronomy 32:11. When God found his people in a “howling wasteland of a wilderness,” he encircled, shielded or guarded them — “like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young.” And so the dove of God’s Spirit broods and blows over our own little lives, and over all creation and history, longing to bring peace and protection.

The Spirit of God forms the formless. He breathes spirit into matter. He creates purpose, order and meaning out of our chaos. He fills the empty void with beauty and goodness. He turns darkness into light, night into day, the evening into a new morning. God calls those things that don’t exist into existence. And in Romans 8 for this week, the Spirit intercedes for all the bondage, decay, groans, pains, frustrations and futility of “the whole creation.”

In the New Testament, the Spirit is called the paraclete, literally, one called alongside to help, encourage, and comfort. And in the earliest art of the first believers, the Spirit is a dove of peace descending into our lives to bring the presence of God’s shalom, that is, anything and everything that nourishes human wholeness and well-being.

Weekly Prayer

Veni, Creator Spiritus, “Come, Creator Spirit!”
Attributed to the German Benedictine monk and priest Rabanus Maurus (776–856).

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.

Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God’s hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.

Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o’erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.

Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.

Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.

Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.

Dan Clendenin:

Image credits: (1) Yale Divinity Digital Image & Text Library; (2–4); and (5)

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