If the title makes you smile, you’re not alone. If it’s a bit confusing, you’re also in good company. For most of us, if we think of any bird that symbolizes the Holy Spirit, it’s a dove. As Christians, we know that God is three in one: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In our frail attempt to understand the mysteries of faith, and this union in particular, we rely on symbols to talk about the roles of each member of the Trinity, and God is gracious to afford us to see some of these played out in Scripture.
Certainly, we can see the connection between the Holy Spirit and something swooping down from the very start of God’s story with Earth. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God hovers over the face of the waters. And in a poetic stroke, this first scene is revisited in the Gospels, as we see a dove descending from the sky and hovering over living water this time – the Word of God, God made flesh – and the Jordan River, water stirred afresh with the presence of God… at the very start of a new story God is fashioning on Earth. (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
Remember that the writers of the New Testament are Jewish and they know their scriptures. They are drawing from the Torah when Jesus’ baptism is described with a spirit as hovering bird. The word used in Genesis 1:2 is a bird term and it’s the same word in Deuteronomy 32:10-11 which says that God guards and cares for his people, “like an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them on its pinions.”
The hovering of the Spirit should give us a picture of giant wings protecting and guiding us. As we see this in the initiation of Jesus’ ministry, we may rightly link it also to his talk of birds, naming the smallest sparrow as valuable to God (Matthew 10:31). Even the sparrow, says the Psalmist, “finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God” (84:3). And then there is that great lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37. It also includes a bird. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” says Jesus, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
I wouldn’t get too caught up in the type of bird since even the eagle that we think about from Exodus 19:4 and Isaiah 40:31 is the word nesher which is really better translated as vulture. There aren’t eagles in Israel, but vultures are plentiful and they have long been venerated in the Middle East. There is more to say on this subject, especially with Jesus’ riddle from Luke 17:33-37 and its relation to Job 39:26-30, but for our purposes, it’s well enough to make a passing mention of eagles and vultures. (I personally think a vulture makes more sense because it is God who goes to the highways and byway to scavenge for those who will join him at the banquet feast.)
Before moving onto geese, I wanted to briefly reference another popular story about a bird from Genesis 8, where Noah sends a dove out to find dry land. The story actually recounts Noah sending the dove out three times. The first time the dove comes back with no sign of the waters receding. The second time, the dove famously returns with an olive leaf, an ancient symbol for peace that we can even see on the back of a dollar bill. On the third occasion, the dove isn’t seen again, a thematic thread to Psalm 55:6 when David says to the Lord, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” It’s not quite a picture of the Holy Spirit, but it has similar elements of water, baptism, and fresh promises…and certainly a bird at the center of the story.
Unlike the birds referenced above, the goose doesn’t have any scriptural security as a symbol, let alone a symbol of the Holy Spirit. So, why bring it up? For the Celtic Christians – those Christians in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, and the Scottish Highlands – the wild goose becomes a symbol of the Holy Spirit much more than the dove.
If we look at a bestiary about the medieval age, the general attributes of a goose include marking the night watch by cackling incessantly, and, oddly enough, the ability to smell humans better than any other animal.
Geese are credited in warning the Romans in 387 BC. Gallic armies had taken most of the city save the Capitoline Hill, the sacred site of the goddess. The remaining Roman citizens fled there in hopes they would be protected. The invaders attempted to charge the final hill one night, but, as legend tells us, Juno’s sacred flock of geese began to cackle loudly to warn the Roman guards. The attack failed and resulted in a settlement of gold that allowed Rome to remain free (for a time).
As to how all this fits into the Holy Spirit as Christianity moves further west, we need to lean into creativity. Perhaps the lore of Rome’s rescue or the peculiar talents of geese helped solidify the bird as a Celtic symbol, but it’s probably a stretch.
However, we can certainly see connected attributes. For example, the Holy Spirit keeps watch over us and sometimes warns us. Paul says, the Spirit, “helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). And the wildness of the Spirit is present in Jesus’ words from John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And there is power in the Spirit, power to do infinitely, and, surprisingly more than we expect. Recall Paul’s words: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).
So, maybe the Celts aren’t too far off in representing the Holy Spirit as a goose. If you’ve ever approached a goose, you better watch out. It’ll attack you. It is said too, that if one goose is injured, another will stay with it and keep it safe. Many geese migrate south during the colder months of the year, but they always return to the same place to begin the yearly cycle again. They have a pattern and keep it.
Jesus ascended into heaven on a cloud, giving us the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide, comfort, and teach. At times he swoops down and we feel his mighty wings hovering over us. Mostly, it’s more like a wild goose chase, as we pursue God, or, more likely, He pursues us. And watch out as He approaches because you will be broken and refashioned into his workmanship.
We know the end. The goose returns to where it started its journey. John tells us, “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” Yes! The water that the Spirit hovers over in Genesis, the water the Spirit descends into in Jesus’ baptism, is the same water that is living, the water that will make us thirst no more.
written by Zach Kincaid