© 2022 Evan D. Garner
One thousand seven hundred eighty-six years ago tomorrow, on January 10, 236AD, the heavens opened and a different dove came down and sat on the head of a man named Fabian. You may know the legend of Pope Fabian’s election as the Bishop of Rome. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that Fabian was among many “eminent and illustrious” church leaders who travelled to Rome to choose the next successor of Peter. After thirteen days of conversation, prayer, and debate, the synod was deadlocked. No one knew who the next pope would be. And then a dove flew down from on high.
Eusebius wrote that, before that incident, Fabian was a little-known preacher from the countryside, who was not in anyone’s mind to be the next pope, but it seems God had other plans. A dove flew down and sat on Fabian’s head, and those who had gathered immediately recognized, as Eusebius wrote, that this was “a scene like that of the holy Spirit once descending upon our Saviour in the form of a dove.” Without further discussion, “the whole body exclaimed, with all eagerness and with one voice, as if moved by the one spirit of God, that he was worthy; and without delay they took and placed him upon the episcopal throne.”
Whether it is the legend that produces results or the results that beget a legend, we should not be surprised to learn that Fabian turned out to be an excellent leader of the church. He was chosen at a time when Christians faced significant persecution, yet under his tenure things began to improve remarkably. He was a gifted administrator and skilled diplomat, who helped give the early, decentralized church an institutional structure that would help it withstand the persecutions that arose later on. In every way, Fabian fulfilled the identity that God revealed in him when that dove descended and landed on his head. I suppose that sometimes we need a dove to fly down in order to see what God is trying to tell us.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, but Luke’s retelling of that episode lets us know that the water part of what happened that day was only a small piece of the story. Matthew and Mark, the other synoptic gospel writers, both recall the moment when Jesus was plunged beneath the water by John the Baptist, but Luke seems to skip over it, preferring instead to focus on what happened next: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” By using three parallel, action-packed infinitive phrases—the heaven was opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice came—Luke helps us focus on what God made clear to the world that day—that Jesus was God’s Son, the Beloved, and that his life was God’s own delight—a manifestation of the divine will in the world.
This wasn’t an ordinary baptism. By that point, John had baptized hundreds—maybe even thousands of people—and there’s no record of any doves landing on anyone else’s head. The people had come to him from all over, seeking spiritual renewal and rejuvenation, and he had given it to them. He had invited the crowds to repent of their sins and undergo the kind of spiritual washing that represented a new start, the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. John’s message was popular, but he wasn’t able to give those people new life. He baptized them with water, but the one who was to come after him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. That successor would be the one to bring the fulness of God’s reign to the earth and give God’s people the Spirit-filled rebirth that was necessary to enter that reign.
On the day when Jesus was baptized by John, when the heaven opened and the Spirit descended and the voice came, God made sure that we recognized that Jesus was the one whom God had chosen to bring God’s reign to the earth—that John’s baptism was giving way to Jesus’—that the time for spiritual preparation had passed and the time for spiritual fulfillment had come. When we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism, we do so as participants in that time of fulfillment. And because, in the waters of Baptism, God unites us with Christ, all those things that were true of Jesus on that day are now true for us as well.
Just as God poured out the Holy Spirit onto Jesus, so too is that same Spirit poured out onto those who are baptized. Just as the fire of divine love and power burned within God’s Son, so too it burns within those who are united to Christ through the waters of Baptism. We may not see any birds fly through the door today, but, because these baptisms forge an unbreakable bond between Christ and the baptized, we recognize the same thing taking place in them right before our eyes.
We don’t need a dove to come and land on anyone’s head in order to see that God is choosing these children of God and naming them as God’s beloveds. When we look into that font and see that water, we also see within it the death and burial of Jesus and his resurrection from the grave. And, because of our union with Christ, we also see in this water our own death and burial and our own resurrection from the grave. This, therefore, is the place where we are reborn in order that we might enter God’s reign. When we hear the minister say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we also hear God’s voice proclaiming to us, “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is where we become full children of God.
Today, the heaven opens. Today, the Spirit descends. Today, God’s voice proclaims, “You are my child; you are my beloved.” Because those things were revealed of Jesus at his baptism, today they are revealed of us—of all who are united with him. We don’t need to see a dove fly down in order to see in each other what God sees. Because we have recognized it in Christ, we recognize it within the Christ that dwells inside us all.