A small wooden dove ornament has found a prominent place at the front of our Christmas tree for the past several decades. It is not like any other I have ever seen – we picked it up from a wood carver at the Stübing open-air museum near Gratwein, Austria – it is made in such a way that it gives the impression of wings in flight rather than being frozen in time.
While it holds special travel memories for us, the prominence of this dove ornament on our Christmas tree has more to do with its significance as a Christian symbol – one that has its origins dating back to the early church. Our contemporary culture views the dove simply as a symbol of peace, but in the church, it is that and much more. For instance, the carver who made our dove ornament told us that in Austria these wooden doves are either hung on Christmas trees or in a corner of the home, and represents the presence of the Holy Spirit. Why would this symbol hold that meaning?
In all four of the gospels, the writers include the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan which, in all accounts, is followed by the opening of the heavens and the descending of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. The Spirit’s descent is described as being like a dove, so associating the Holy Spirit with the image of a dove makes sense. The witnesses of this event, though, would have thought much differently about something being “like a dove” than we do. This simile serves to make connections to both the future and the past – to the nature of Christ’s pending ministry which is linked to depictions of the dove in the Hebrew Scriptures. God is good at connecting dots.
In the books of the law, the dove is the only bird which is allowed for use in the sacrifices. While the sacrificial system for Christians has been superseded by Christ’s sacrifice, this connection would not have been lost on the early followers of Jesus. For contemporary Christians, the descriptions of temple sacrifices serve as reminders for several different aspects of our relationship with God. There were three ways in which doves were used as sacrifices: as a burnt offering, a blood offering and for the purpose of consecration.
In all three cases, the use of doves was a provision for the poor who could not afford the more expensive animals for sacrifice. This seems consistent with Jesus’ self-declaration that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18) The gospel is for all people – rich or poor – there is no distinction.
The burnt offering for which doves could be used (Leviticus 1:14) was performed as a sign of submission to God. The dove in this case is an apt choice: the dove is well known for its submissive nature – willing to come close to people to be fed and to be held. This relates well to Christ’s own submission to God in his obedience in going to the cross (Isaiah 42:1-4). Christ’s example serves as a reminder for my own submission to God (John 14:21), and submission to the brethren in Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21)
Doves could also be substituted for a lamb in the blood sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins (Leviticus 5:7). If this was the case, there were to be two doves brought to the temple – one used as a sacrifice for their sins, and another for a burnt offering. This adds yet another level of significance to the connection between the dove and Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrifice which Christ made as a propitiation for our sins was done under a willing submission to God (Luke 22:42). It is in this sacrifice which we find real peace – a peace with God – a reconciliation of the broken relationship caused by our sin (Romans 5:1-11; Colossians 1:19-20).
It is worth noting here that the universal peace we often wish to associate with Christmas is not what God had in mind. The angels’ declaration of peace to the shepherds was limited. They said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) Jesus told us himself, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34-39) – that there would be conflict, even within families, over the following of Jesus. Because of the contentious nature of the gospel, Jesus told his followers they should be innocent as doves, but they should also be wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16).
A final reason doves were brought to the temple for sacrifice was for the purpose of cleansing or consecration. This is what we find Mary doing after the birth of Jesus when she brings two turtledoves to the temple (compare Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:5-7). So, it seems unsurprising to me that at the consecration of Jesus’ ministry with the baptism by John the Baptist that a dove would show up!
Early Christians did not seem to have the sacrificial dove in mind, though, when they used an image of a dove with a branch in its mouth on the walls of catacombs and sepulchers in Europe. This symbolic dove takes us further back in the Old Testament to the dove first mentioned in the story of Noah.
Toward the end of their stay on the ark, Noah sends out some birds to try and assess the state of affairs beyond the ark – first the raven (you can read more about that here) and then the dove. The dove was sent out three different times: on the first attempt, the dove simply returns; on the second attempt, the dove returns with an olive branch (thus our modern symbol); on the third release, the dove never returns.
The branch carried by the dove signifies two things to me. First, the branch brings hope for restoration and renewal. Keep in mind, at the time, Noah had no idea how long they were to remain on the ark. The fact that the waters had abated enough for plants to be above water level must have given Noah and crew assurance that the days on the ark were coming to an end, and they could soon return to a life on dry ground.
Further, the branch signaled hope for new life to come after the flood. Why would a dove be bringing a branch back to the ark? The best explanation I can think of is the dove’s innate desire to build a nest. As we often hear, there are times when animals seem to know what is happening (or about to happen) in nature long before we humans are aware – the dove knew that the time was right to lay some eggs – new life was on the way!
Like Noah awaiting the time of restoration on earth, the early Christians buried their dead with the hope of the gospel. The carved image of the dove reminded Jesus followers that there is eternal life with Christ awaiting us on the other side of this life for those who believe in Him (John 3:16) – that there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21).
That little wooden dove on my Christmas tree serves as a reminder to me about all these things. It is about peace, but not as the world gives – it is about a real and lasting peace which has been made available to everyone. The dove reminds me of God’s enduring presence in this world. The dove also reminds me about submission, and forgiveness, and consecration, and restoration, and new life. It reminds me about the deeper meaning of Christmas.
 The dove was made from a couple pieces of wood – one forming the wings, the other forming the head and tail. The carver first makes V-shaped grooves along both sides of a block of wood. The pieces of wood are then softened in some water. After this, the carver is able to make thin slices part way down the wood block to a solid base. The sliced sections which are still connected to the base can then be splayed out (like playing cards) in order to make the wings and tail of the dove.