The birds and the bows: a Pentecost post about divine doves

The Gospel of Luke tells us that a strange thing happened to Our Lady at the moment of the Incarnation.

And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God…”

During the middle part of the Creed,

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man

we are told to bow deeply. This is the one of the few times in the Mass when the laity is specifically instructed to bow or perform any other kind of pious gesture. What’s the deal?

First: this bow is a natural sign of respect for this key moment in world history. There is much more that can be written about this, and this excellent study guide and video from our friends at Elements of the Catholic Mass does a great job of that.

Second: by bowing, we mimic not only the flight path of the Holy Spirit, so to speak, but the posture of Mary, probably. That is, we affirm by our movements the physical presence of God who “came down from Heaven” to Planet Earth, and we recall the humility of Mary who subjected herself totally to the will of God.

Third, by bowing we block the light from above and cast our own shadow, creating a visible reminder of this moment right in front of us. This assumes the lights are on, and you are not attending the 10 pm Candlelight Mass at your nearest college campus ministry center.

Catholicism really focuses on this idea of “overshadowing,” so before the consecration, when the priest says

Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them Holy,

he spreads his hands over the bread and wine, thereby creating a shadow while invoking the Holy Spirit. #connections!

You may also have spied the Holy Spirit on the underside of baldachins, like this one over the altar at the St. Thomas Korean Center in Anaheim, California,


or this one in the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.

Art and Liturgy - Thomas Aquinas College Santa Paula Chapel - Baldachino Dove

Again, the Holy Spirit overshadows the altar, whereupon Christ is made incarnate again in the Mass.

There are Old Testament connections here. In Exodus 40, when Moses and his folks have finished building the Ark of the Covenant to God’s exact specifications, he sends down a cloud to overshadow it.

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud settled down upon it and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

It is not hard to see the parallels to Our Lady. Indeed, Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant. She is the first dwelling place of Christ on earth, the first tabernacle.

Art and Liturgy - Custom Tabernacle for church in Maricopa Arizona.jpg
Detail from a custom tabernacle crafted by Granda Liturgical Arts. The enamel decoration reads Foederis Arca (Ark of the Covenant) and highlights Mary’s role as the Ark of the New Covenant.

Bowing during the Creed is more than just aerobics and the doves on the ceiling at church are more than just decoration. As always in the liturgy, there is a deeper symbolism that connects us with the very foundations of salvation history.

Featured image: Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1655–60, Hermitage Museum