As I was growing up, my family could have said, with the disciples of John the Baptist whom Paul discovered at Ephesus, “We haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).
But we were spared a total aridity because we knew someone who, without our realizing it, was filtering the Holy Spirit to us. It was Mary. Somehow in this woman we were given some inkling of who or what the Holy Spirit is.
My father had come back from Lourdes at the end of his service in the First World War with a deep devotion to this “lovely lady dressed in blue.” And that devotion was anchored firmly by what happened to his first son, Frank, at the age of two. In my grandparents’ farmhouse, a kettle of water was boiling in the open fireplace when Frank, in an unnoticed moment of curiosity, reached and tipped the kettle over on himself, severely scalding his little leg. So severe was the burn that it demanded a skin graft. One of the ranch hands offered to undergo the operation to provide the skin. But our Aunt Margaret, before putting Frank to bed the night before the operation, sprinkled some Lourdes water on the wound and prayed devoutly that the Lady of Lourdes would intercede for a miracle. The next morning, the skin was so well recovered that no graft was needed. That healing obviously made an impact on our family, especially on my father.
This kind of activation of faith through signs is the work of the Holy Spirit, but often he stays in the background and works through human instruments. Of these, after Jesus, his favorite seems to be Mary. And why not? She was his chosen vessel to achieve the miracle of miracles, the virginal conception and birth, in time, of the Son of God. Often called spouse of the Holy Spirit, Mary embodies the feminine face of God, which is sometimes attributed to the Holy Spirit. I remember taking a walk with a young man in Lithuania whose English was adequate but not perfect. Whenever he would speak of the Spirit, he would use “her” or “she,” because in Lithuanian “spirit” is feminine! It was a refreshing reminder that God is beyond the conceptual metaphors of our language, even when those metaphors are the ones he chose by which to reveal himself!
The Holy Spirit “overshadowed” Mary, enabling her to conceive Jesus. . . . The word is taken from the story of the cloud overshadowing the tabernacle in the desert, a sign of the divine presence. We can conclude that if Jesus is the Word made flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary is the living tabernacle of the Word, made so in the very same action of the Spirit.
Mary is the Model Responder
Even prior to conceiving Jesus, Mary was moved by the Holy Spirit to give her yes to the mystery, and so she became the model, the prototype of obedient response to God’s plan of salvation for all ages to come. In fact, it is this obedient response, even more than her physical mothering of Jesus, that is heralded in the gospels. For while the divine motherhood is unique, responding to the word is something all are called to do, and fortunately in this we have Mary to learn from. She is blessed twice for her yes, first by Elizabeth, who exclaimed, “Blessed is she who believed that the words spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45). And later, when a woman from the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed,” Jesus replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28).
So the Holy Spirit worked in Mary not only the unspeakable mystery of the incarnation, but also gave her the privilege of being the first, the ideal, and the model responder to God’s revealed plan. In other words, she who received the Word of God in her womb also received the word of God in her heart, from where we might learn to receive. Both receptions were the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus might be rejected by the temple priests and the Pharisees, he might be betrayed by a friend, he might be denied by his own chief disciple and abandoned by the rest to be crucified by the Romans, but he did have one heart that gave a perfect and persevering welcome to him: his mother.
Those who fear that drawing close to Mary will lead them away from Jesus have not understood the entire trinitarian foundation of the Christian faith. To look at the Father is to see the Son. To look at the Son is to see the Father. To look at the Holy Spirit is to be thrown into the mutual embrace of Father and Son. The Trinity is about relationships, about the self that is constituted by the total gift to and from the other. And relationships are what God’s work in time and history is all about, too. To look into Mary’s eyes is to see Jesus, for he is all she cares about. And who better than a mother can teach us to love her Son?
The Cloud may overshadow the sanctuary, but the Cloud also moves on—and so does the sanctuary. Mary will move with the Cloud. Model listener, she heard the entire message, not merely that she was to be mother of the Messiah (who could not have been overwhelmed with that mission?), but also that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant, and that meant that Elizabeth would be in need. The Holy Spirit did not sculpt Mary into a statue to await pilgrimages; rather, he moved her into service, with haste, Luke says (1:39), foreshadowing the mission of the child she carried in her womb, who did not come to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). At Elizabeth’s door, Mary’s voice of greeting triggered two events: the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41, 44).
Oh, if only I could just once hear the voice of Mary, I, too, would be filled with the Holy Spirit; I would leap for joy, and I could not contain my praise.
Father, I deeply long for a new outpouring of your Holy Spirit in my life. Unworthy though I am, because of your love for me I know that you want to give me the Holy Spirit even more than I want to receive him. Jesus, your mother was present at the cross when you “handed over the Spirit.” May she be at my side now as my mother, to show me how to receive this Gift of gifts. Amen.
Excerpted from Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me by Fr. George Montague, SM (The Word Among Us Press, 2008).