We celebrate Mary’s conception without original sin on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This miracle was accomplished by the grace of God to make way for another conception: Jesus’. Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power and indwelling presence that never left her. Ponder this Advent what that looked like, what it meant, in Mary’s life.
In an obscure village of Galilee, in answer to centuries of prayer for a messiah, a divine messenger spoke to a young girl: “Hail, most highly favored one. The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Who was this maid? “The virgin’s name was Mary,” betrothed to a man named Joseph (1:27). What surprised her was not, according to the text, the appearance of an angel but the greeting. She must have thought:
What is so special about me, that I should be hailed this way, so highly favored? And why did he not address me with the normal Jewish greeting—“Peace”? Instead he said, “Rejoice!” [the real meaning of the word most often translated “Hail”]. That sounded a lot like the prophets trumpeting the dawn of salvation, as in Zephaniah: “Rejoice, O daughter Zion, / sing joyfully, O Israel! / Be glad and exult with all your heart, / O daughter Jerusalem! . . . / The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior” [3:14, 17].
Favor with God
In fact, whether or not Mary realized it at that moment, she was daughter Zion, daughter Jerusalem, told to rejoice at the coming of the Savior (the meaning of Jesus’ name) in her midst—in her womb.
“Fear not, Mary,” the angel reassured her, using again the same language in Zephaniah (3:16). “You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).
If Mary was overwhelmed with the greeting, she must have been even more overwhelmed by this description of the mission given to her. Did she understand the enormous scope of the message? Probably not. First of all, how could this be, since in the puzzling account of Luke, though engaged she had resolved to remain a virgin? But then, what did it mean that her son, the Messiah, would reign over the house of Jacob forever?
The angel explained that this would be no ordinary birth. “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” (Luke 1:35, NAB). In the Hebrew Scriptures, which Mary knew, the Spirit of God often came upon those anointed for a mission, like the heroes in the Book of Judges and the prophets and kings Saul and David. But whoever heard of the Holy Spirit coming, without human help, to work the conception of a child in a virginal womb? The angel’s explanation of the manner in which the conception would take place must have been even more puzzling to Mary than the call to be the mother of the Messiah.
Ark of the Covenant
The angel said that the Holy Spirit, the power of the Most High, would overshadow her. That would have reminded her of the cloud overshadowing the ark of the covenant. The cloud revealed God’s presence in a visible way, confirming that the tablets of the law resting in the ark were indeed his word. He had pitched his tent in the midst of his people, and his word was etched in stone. But the Word of God in Mary would be flesh etched of her flesh, God in person.
As much as the people of Israel rejoiced to have the Lord in their midst, they nevertheless trembled with fear and awe before the ark. Only Moses was allowed to enter the tent housing the ark. And later, when the ark was in the Temple in Jerusalem, only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year. If the Israelites approached the dwelling with such fear and awe, what is to be said of us, the people of the new covenant, before the ark that housed the Son of God in the flesh!
The achievement of this marvel was the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Luke leaves to our imagination and to the Church’s reflection what this unique union of Mary with the Holy Spirit meant for her. Of one thing we can be sure: God did not use Mary as a mere physical instrument for the conception of Jesus. Just as he allowed her mind to question, he also sought the free consent of her will. St. Bernard pictures the whole unredeemed world holding its breath, pleading for Mary to say yes to this call. Once it was clear to her that this was what God wanted, she wanted it too. “Let it be done to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). Both her mind and her will were fully engaged.
“Engaged” is a good word, for it is also used for the mutual commitment of couples who intend to marry. But in this case, there was no delay from engagement to marriage, nor was there a delay in achieving the goal of the union, the conception of Jesus. There was no mutual vow made of “Till death do us part”; the union would last for eternity. In this mutual commitment and cooperation, the Church’s Tradition has endowed Mary with the title “Spouse of the Holy Spirit.” Because of the way God does things, with perfect respect for the person he engages in a mission, Mary does not cease being the spouse of the Holy Spirit after Jesus is born any more than parents cease to be married once their child is born. In Mary’s case, because she lives now in heavenly glory, her spousal relation with the Holy Spirit is a living, eternally enduring reality.
Because the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary is a spiritual one, taking place within her body and spirit, wherever Mary is, the Holy Spirit is. There has never been a divorce. If Paul could say of every Christian, “Your body is a temple of the holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19, NAB), then this is true of Mary in an eminent way. If we are to glorify God in our bodies (6:20), then Mary certainly glorifies God in hers, making visible the presence and the action of the Holy Spirit.
This is an excerpt from Mary’s Life in the Spirit: Meditations on a Holy Duet by George T. Montague, SM. Published by The Word Among Us Press 2011, and available by special order from www.wau.org/books