The last twenty years or so have seen a renewal of interest in the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. The Charismatic movement has given prominence to the power of the Spirit in the Church, but a lively awareness of his presence is not confined merely to those who be- long to the movement. It is now widespread in the Church and is truly one of the distinctive marks of the Church’s contemporary self-awareness.
In the early years of the charismatic renewal Mary was often largely ignored. It was felt that earlier devotional practice had given to Mary attributes which more properly belonged to the Holy Spirit. She had been hailed as the ‘Seat of Wisdom’ and ‘Mother of Good Counsel’, whereas wisdom and counsel were more properly gifts of the Holy Spirit. She had been given the titles ‘Throne of Grace’ and Mediatrix of all Graces’, whereas properly speaking grace was the work of the Holy Spirit. And so on. It was felt that in Christian piety Mary had usurped the place of the Holy Spirit.
But in later years as the charismatic movement developed and became an accepted facet of the life of the Church, a more mature appreciation of the place of Mary in Christian life became apparent. It was seen that she was a woman of the Spirit – the one who was most responsive to the life of the Spirit within her, who never placed any obstacle to his power and was always delicately sensitive to his inspiration. She is thus seen as a model for all Christians who live the life of the Spirit.
There is good Scriptural warrant for this appreciation of Mary. St Luke in both his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles places great emphasis on the role of the Spirit in the coming of salvation. The beginning of both books evokes the same sort of atmosphere. The first two chapters of the Gospel have been called ‘The Gospel of the Birth of the Messiah’, and the opening chapters of the Acts are known as ‘The Gospel of the Birth of the Church’. In both the Spirit plays a prominent part, and in both.
Mary is there also. In chapters one and two of the Gospel the Holy Spirit is mentioned at least seven times, and in the first two chapters of the Acts He is named eleven times.
Moreover in the Gospel He appears as the power of God overshadowing Mary, thus bringing the Word to flesh in her womb; and in the acts he appears as a mighty wind and ball of fire, coming down on Mary and the other disciples, thus bringing the Church to birth in the world.
The ‘overshadowing’ of Mary by the Holy Spirit at the annunciation evokes rich imagery from the Old Testament. In response to Mary’s re- quest as to how it would happen that she would become the mother of the ‘Son of the Most High’ (1:32-34), the angel tells her: ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called the Son of God.” (1:35).
The ‘Holy Spirit’ and the ‘power of the Most High’ both refer to the same divine reality. In the Old Testament the Spirit was seen as the power of God reaching out into the world. In the opening verses of the first book of the Bible (Genesis) we read: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.’ (1:1 -2).
Creation is the work of God’s Spirit. He brings form out of chaos. What was seen by the ancients as a great whirling mass of indeterminate matter was given shape gradually by the forming action of the Spirit as the six days of creation unfolded. The world we know gradually emerged under his guiding hand-out of chaos and mess into order and beauty.
But the Spirit was not only the formative power of God. He was also a life- giving power as well. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: ‘Yahweh God fashioned man of dust from the soil. Then he breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being.’ (2.7) There is a pun here which is lost in the English translation. In Hebrew the word for ‘spirit’ is ruach which also means breath and wind. (Similarly in Greek the word pneuma has the same meanings.) So when we read ‘He breathed into his nostrils a breath of life’, this should also be understood as ‘He’ spirited’ into his nostrils a ‘spirit’ of life’. Thus the Spirit not only formed Adam from dust of the earth, he also breathed life into that lifeless body of clay.
We also find this awareness of the life-giving power of the Spirit in the prophecy of Ezekiel when he recounts his famous vision of the valley of dry bones (Ez 37. 1 – 14). Ezekiel is transported to a valley full of bones that were quite dried up. Then as he watched there was a sound of clattering and the bones joined together, became covered with sinews and flesh, until they were the bodies of a great army. But these bodies remained lifeless. Then the Lord summoned forth his Spirit: ‘Come from the four winds, breath (spirit); breathe on these dead; let them live!’ And ‘the breath (spirit) entered them; they came to life again and stood up on their feet, a great immense army’ (Ez 37, 9-10).
Another important theme associated with the Spirit that we find in the Old Testament is the expectation that the coming of the Messianic times will be marked by a great outpouring of God’s Spirit. The Jewish people believed that the Lord had promised them a Saviour, a Messiah, who would restore the for- tunes of Israel and usher in an era of glory, peace and prosperity. We find this in Ezekiel: ‘And 1 shall put my spirit in you, and you will live, and 1 shall resettle you on your own land’ (37.14); and most clearly in the prophecy of Joel: ‘I will pour out my spirit on all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions. Even on the slaves, men and women, will 1 pour out my spirit in those days” (3. 1-2).
It is this wealth of Old Testament background that Luke had in mind when he wrote in the Annunciation story that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow’ (1. 35). The angel is promising that the creative life – giving power of god-his Spirit – will come upon Mary, and this outpouring will be a sign that the Messianic Age has dawned.
He is announcing a new creation. Over the emptiness and darkness of Mary’s womb the Spirit will hover and fashion out of “her nothingness’ a new being – something never seen before, something that had never existed before – the Son of God made man, the Word made flesh. God is entering our world, becoming one of us. The Creator becomes a creature.
This outpouring of the Spirit into Mary is more than just a sign of the coming of the Messianic Age. It actually brings it about. It brings the Messiah into our world in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Moreover, the words ‘the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow’ would have been very evocative to a Jew of the first century. They would have suggested to him the ‘cloud of glory’ that overshadowed the ark of the covenant that was carried in a tent during the years of wandering in the desert and which was later enshrined in the Holy of Holies in the heart of the Temple. ‘The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle … For the cloud of Yahweh rested on the tabernacle by day, and a fire shone within the cloud by night, for all the House of Israel to see.’ (Exodus 40.34,38; also 1 Kings 8.10-13).
This cloud (shekinah) was the visible manifestation of the presence of God in the midst of his people. It proclaimed that God was with them. And now at the Annunciation the angel announces to Mary that she too is to be overshadowed by the power of the Most High, signifying the presence of God within her – just as the cloud signified the presence of God in the old Temple. She is to be ark of the New Covenant. (Thus there is good scriptural warrant for the title ‘Ark of the Covenant given to Mary in the Litany of Loreto.)
Mary thus becomes the one point in the universe where creation literally touches its creator. The union of Creator and creation is found literally within her. As has been so beautifully said: ‘She is the selfless space where God became man.
We all find ourselves in her. God could have saved us simply by divine decree without any involvement on our part. But instead He chose to associate us in the work of our redemption. Mary was our representative. The whole world was “groaning in one great act of giving birth’, waiting for that moment when it would be set free from slavery to sin (cf. Romans 8.22). We were all waiting for that moment when Mary would say ‘yes’ and the Word would be made flesh by the power of the Spirit.
Patrick Bearsley, a member of the Society of Mary, held a PhD (Angelicum) and an M.Lit from Oxford. He is a former Professor of Philosophy and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s College, Auckland, New Zealand. He died in Rome 2000.