Luke ensures that we don’t take the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus as anything less than a divine manifestation with profound religious-political consequences. He reports, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove” (Luke 3:21-22). Bodily form. The Spirit was manifest. Luke adds the clause, “in bodily form,” to contradict the inauguration of the Caesars and summon all to allegiance to the world’s rightful king — Jesus.
In Caesar and the Sacrament, R. Alan Streett observes that the “bodily form” of the dove is significant in two ways. First, it is a dove that descended, not the ubiquitous eagle of Roman domination — a predator known for its power, not peace. This observation corresponds with a message tethered to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Passion Sunday. He arrives not on a war horse, the stallion of generals, but on a donkey, emblematic of peace. That momentous entrance, interminably bearing the misnomer of the “Triumphal Entry,” occurred at the Golden Gate while at the same time Roman legions were likely arriving into the city from the north through the Damascus Gate, led by a Legatus on a military steed. A stark contrast is at work, using the symbolic significance of the animal kingdom. So, too, Luke contrasts the dove and eagle as emblems of kings and kingdoms. The message is that Jesus comes as “the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
A second observation: the “bodily” form signifies that the baptism of Jesus was a religious-political event performed by the God of Israel, tilting the “body politic” in a decidedly messianic direction. This one, Jesus, is God’s beloved son with whom he is well pleased, not Caesar (Matt. 3:17). Allegiances must shift. And with allegiance; religious devotion. Jesus is both Lord and God.
The importance of this aviary imagery in Luke (with an antecedent in the biblical accounts of creation and the flood (Gen. 1:2; 8:6-12)) contrasts powerful superstitions that held the Roman mind captive. Avian signs were omens that presaged the will of the gods. Such prophetic tokens were divined by augurs skilled at augury, that is, “reading” harbinger signs from Mount Olympus. The eagle portends the right to rule. Augurs would look for the sign of the eagle to confirm the elevation of the next Caesar. Augury, then, provides the root for well-known derivatives in English: “auspices” and “inauguration” = the coronation of a king. It is little wonder that the adopted son of Julius Caesar not only took on his father’s name as a declaration of inherited regality but also Augustus to declare his divine appointment and favor. Roman superstition to augury only served to fortify the belief that Augustus, as the son of Julius, was the son of god.
Enter Jesus. The advent of the true Son of God and world’s rightful king upended and ified the unscriptural appropriation of aviary signs since the prophetic Word of God predated all things Greek or Roman by centuries. Jesus fulfills the Creator’s God promise to “anoint” his chosen one with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God’s anointed, his Messiah.
As the Spirit hovered over the waters and the dove singled the end of judgments, so too, the bodily dove-form of the Holy Spirit, decisively confirmed by the audible voice of the Father, ended the soothsaying of the augurs by announcing that this one—Jesus of Nazareth—is endowed with the Spirit “without measure” (John 3:34), that Jesus comes with shalom. Jesus is God’s Son. There is no other. Jesus is Christ, according to the one and only, true and living God. Mount Olympus brings warfare upon the Earth. Mount Golgotha brings salvation. Indeed, the decent of the bodily-dove-form of the Spirit triumphs over the Greek and Roman pantheon is a single moment. The narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures sweeps away the Aquila (eagle) mounted upon the signa Romanum or vexillum as the symbol of who or what rules the world. Instead, the one who embodies the dove, that is, the Holy Spirit will be mounted upon the staff of Calvary. It will be the cross of Christ that gives peace to the world (John 14:27); peace bound up with the Spirit (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 5:22-25). The Roman Aquila facilitated the crucifixion only to have the cross bring about the reign of Christ in the power of the “dove” (i.e., the Spirit).
Your baptism was meant to change your status, identity, relationships, and loyalties.
In a stunning reversal of the Ides of March, when the spirit of Julius was said to rise up at the moment of his death giving the supposition of his deification, at Jesus’ inaugural event the Holy Spirit descends confirming his divinity amidst life, his lordship in servitude, his power in compassion, his perfection through obedience, his victory through sacrifice. Hence, John the Baptist publicly declares in territory governed by Caesar Augustus: “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (John 3.34). It isn’t Augustus, Julius’ heir, but Jesus who is the true Son of God and Savior. The dove of God is more powerful than the eagle of Rome.
The Lucan account of Jesus undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, climaxing with the bodily manifestation of the Spirit “as a dove,” fortified by the Father’s confirmatory declaration, announces that Jesus has the power and prerogative to “baptize with the Holy Spirit,” that is, with the Spirit of shalom. Thus, the post-resurrection Holy Baptism instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ is a rite that emancipates from any and all domination and ifies myths and superstitions. It is, among other things, a deeply political conversion. The baptized have a king: his name is Jesus. This constitutes a political worldview conversion just as much as a religious worldview conversion. This biblical reality has been neglected and overshadowed in our day by an overwrought separation between Church and State, where allegiance to the King has been radically privatized, individualized, and rendered subjective, thus muting if not ifying the political voice of Christ in the lives of Christians. Your baptism was meant to change your status, identity, relationships, and loyalties. You’re meant to confess it: Hence it’s place in the Nicene Creed and the Nicene Creed’s place in every divine service in which Holy Communion—the feast of allegiance and subversion—is celebrated with shalom.