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.
Devotion to the Lady in Blue
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.
Spouse of the Holy Spirit
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 (Exodus 40:34-35). 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.
In Mary, See Jesus
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?
George T. Montague, a Marianist priest, is professor of biblical theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and former president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, and has served as editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. This article is adapted from Holy Spirit, Make Your Home in Me (The Word Among Us Press, 2008).