Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bird Watching on The Baptism of Our Lord

It was 14oF when I went out to pick up the newspaper from the end of the driveway.  It was unusually quiet for a Sunday morning.  It was too early for the murmuring exodus of cars headed to church or too cold for the dogs who yip at every dashing squirrel, and there were no leaf blowers howling   — any unraked leaves being conveniently buried under 4 inches of icy snow. All of which made the sharp knocks from across the street hard to miss.  

I spotted his red crest first.  Undeterred by the cold, or the darting wrens, a pileated woodpecker was digging into a tree across the street.  I stood and watched him until I was shivering, then slipped inside to grab something to take a photo with (Math Man's phone sitting right inside the door). The dried leaves shimmied in the rising breeze, sounding as if a rushing river had materialized overnight on the next street, and the woodpecker processed his way up the trunk, unruffled by the wind, huge in dignity.  The Lord God Bird, or rather its cousin.

Tomorrow is the last day of the Christmas season, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (at least on the current calendar, the note in my breviary for Epiphany is clear that if January 8th falls on a Sunday, Baptism of the Lord is omitted and Ordinary Time starts immediately on Monday).  The Gospel will leave us with the image of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the Jordan - in the form of a περιστεραν (peristera).  The translation will say "dove" but it could equally well have been rendered "pigeon" -- the Greek gets translated both ways in the New Testament, and there is no clear line between doves and pigeons.  I suspect we get dove because pigeon pulls up images of splattered statues and aggressive birds 

I went to a talk last spring where the speaker referred to the Holy Spirit as a  "feral pigeon" as a matter of course (and which also featured an extended reflection on the ivory billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird.)  This characterization of God as feral continues to haunt me, it seems both almost profane, dancing with heresy.  But then I think what's the opposite of feral?  Domesticated? Could I really think of God, of the Holy Spirit, as "domesticated"?  That, I think, is heresy. God as a creature we have gradually accustomed to living with us?  God who doesn't endanger us?  God who is subordinate to us?  No, no and absolutely not.

Feral, which carries the sense of unruly, even dangerous, seems more apt for God, who promises us not tranquility, but presence in the storms.

The Holy Spirit shakes things up, blesses the unexpected as well as the ordinary.  Of course She is feral, and not in the least domesticated. She may even be a pigeon, strutting on the streets of Philadelphia.

A snippet from the interwebs that sticks with me, about disturbing word choices.  Child to waitstaff:  "I wish to devour the unborn."  Waitstaff: "Excuse me."  Mother (with a long sigh):  "He wants eggs.  Scrambled eggs."

Dodos are in the same family as pigeons (Columbidae).

Varying language lets us dance, pick up and shake something


  1. I love words . . .new words . . .and ordinary words used in unusual contexts. Challenging reflection on "feral"!

  2. I've been thinking about it for about 10 months, so I'd agree, it's challenging, but also captivating. I enjoy words that push and pull.