HOLY SPIRIT: Beginning With Mary—The Holy Spirit And Mary by Tom Smail

The Holy Spirit in Person

Beginning With Mary—The Holy Spirit And Mary by Tom Smail

From The Giving Gift

But if all this involves dynamic personal relationships, then it is to one of the most significant of these in all its particularity that we must now turn.  The place at which, according to Matthew and Luke and the creedal tradition of the church, the Holy Spirit begins to reveal himself in his New Testament fullness is in relation to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Of course when the creed brings the Holy Spirit and Mary together, the subject of the sentence is not either of them, but “Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.”  If the Spirit works revealingly in Mary, it is not for her sake or yet for his own, but so that Jesus Christ can be formed in her and born from her.  Mary’s response is not to the Holy Spirit as such but to the promise about Jesus that is made to her, (Luke 2:26-38).  The Christological concentration is central from the start and anything that we say about Mary and the Spirit that is not related to that center will be literally eccentric and distorted.

Nevertheless, if the gospel as summarized in the creeds has a Christological center, it also has a Mariological starting point.  It is through Mary and no one else that Christ is born in a way that reveals both the nature and action of the Spirit and that constitutes and establishes the unique blessedness of Mary among women, (Luke 1:42).  Much modern post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Mariology has a scriptural and ecumenical character that the older Mariology almost entirely lacked.  It sees Mary not as the exalted Queen of Heaven distributing the gifts and graces of the Spirit, but as the model charismatic, the one in whom the Spirit began to do the work that would have its prototype and climax not in her but in her Son.  What happened to her in Nazareth is not the completion of the New Testament work of the Spirit but its starting point.  It is therefore right that in this introductory chapter she should have her place and her honor.  In her we are shown what is on the way in Jesus, her son.

The accounts of Matthew and Luke of the virginal conception of Jesus without a human father have had a poor press recently both from theologians and from certain bishops.  Fortunately I do not have to argue that question here, but can rest content with indicating my own position.  As I see it, if we give the scriptural narratives the benefits of the doubt and accept them till they are proved unacceptable, and if we believe in the God of the Biblical tradition who is Lord of outward physical events as much as of internal spiritual ones, there is no reason why we should not believe that Jesus was born, as Matthew and Luke say he was, by the creative action of the Holy Spirit upon Mary without the sexual intervention of a husband.  That is the basis of my own believing and therefore of what follows.  Those who think that the birth stories are more legend than history may nevertheless come to terms with what follows by seeing in the story of the Spirit’s dealings with Mary a parable and anticipation of his dealings with all who believe in Christ.

Thus we can see how the Spirit enabled Mary to receive Christ in her unique way, which is a sign and promise of how through the same Spirit the same Christ will in a different way be formed in all Christians.  Here we make contact with the understanding of Mary as the model charismatic common in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and expounded in the context of the charismatic renewal by such writers as René Laurentin and Cardinal L. J. Suenens in a way that is easy for non-Roman Christians to assimilate.  As Cardinal Suenens puts it: “She is the Christian par excellence, filled to overflowing with the Spirit of Christ.  Mary’s role is not in the order of obtaining grace.  The Spirit alone is and remains the Envoy of the Father and the Son.  Her place is not as a mediator.  Mary’s role is in relation to our response.  In union with her and following in her steps, we are helped to receive the Holy Spirit and to listen to his promptings.”

We may wonder if the picture of Mary as the well-nigh perfect Christian implicit in that passage has scriptural warrant and want to ask what exactly is the nature of our “union” with her and of the “help” in receiving the Spirit which she provides.  But we can agree wholeheartedly with the Cardinal’s central assertion that the significance of Mary is to be found in the unique way in which Christ came to her through the Spirit and in the response she made to that coming.  Mary is, indeed, the model charismatic precisely because what the Spirit gave her was not primarily tongues or prophecy but the gift of the Son.  Mary in her situation was the first to receive and respond to Christ in a way that is exemplary for all Christians whom also the Spirit seeks to unite with Christ.  Therefore, in her we may find a personalized promise and prospectus of the whole New Testament work of the Spirit.  By looking at what he did in her, we can open up the issues ahead of us and prepare ourselves to deal with them.

1. We may note first the implicitly Trinitarian structure of the gospel stories of the birth of Jesus. Of course, Matthew and Luke are not working with any explicitly Trinitarian view of God and take no note of the pre-existence of the Son who was born of Mary.  Nevertheless, in the light of all that we know about the work of the Spirit in the New Testament, and the Trinitarian doctrine of God which the New Testament gospel implies and requires, the threefold structure of the Lukan birth stories is highly significant.  They speak of a sovereign God in whose loving purpose and miraculous and mysterious action this birth has its source and significance.  They speak of the one who is born as the Son of God, which clearly means here not just the messianic fulfiller who springs from the house of David, but one who has a unique and mysterious relation to God, because his Father is not Joseph who is of the line of David, but God himself.  The term Son of God, which in the Judaism of the time usually meant messianic king, has in the birth of Jesus begun to mean someone who is, in a completely new and mysterious way, directly and immediately related to God.

Further, the word and will of the Father that bring this Son to birth through Mary have their execution through the Holy Spirit in a way we shall go on to examine.  This child is conceived not by the action of any man, but by the action of the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” (Luke 1:35). 

So, this is a story of a God who has a Son and a Spirit in intimate and mysterious, if still largely undefined, relationship to himself.  The action into which Mary was drawn was the action of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.  The context is clearly, if still implicitly, Trinitarian.  Right from the beginning with Mary, we are pointed towards that Trinitarian understanding of God which the New Testament account of the work of the Spirit presupposes and requires.

2.  There is from the beginning with Mary an interdependence between the work of the Spirit and the coming of the Son. The conception of Christ in the womb of Mary is made possible by the creative action of the Spirit, but the creative act of the Spirit in Mary has as its one end and aim the conception and incarnation of the Son.  The Son is dependent for his humanity on the work of the Spirit, and the Spirit acts completely in the service of the Son.  This mutual subordination of Son and Spirit to each other, whereby each acts in dependence on the other, is already indicated and suggested by what happens to Mary.  One of our major concerns in this book will be to explore again how Spirit and Son are related both in the gospel itself and in the life of God which the gospel reveals to us.  We shall discover again and again not only that the Son receives from the Spirit, as he did at his conception, but that also the Spirit acts only for the sake of the Son and to further the work of the Son, as he did at his conception.  We shall find reason to correct the one-sided emphasis on the dependence of the Spirit on the Son which characterized my earlier book, Reflected Glory.  The birth stories themselves insist that the Son depends on the Spirit for his coming into the world, and that dependence continues throughout his Earthly life and beyond.

3. The birth stories raise the questions of the relationship of the work of the Spirit to Mary’s response. What comes to her is on the one hand pure gift.  She is highly favored, (Luke 1:28), because this gift is gratuitously bestowed upon her.  But, on the other hand, the story speaks of her willing reception of this gift.  “‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered.  ‘May it be to me as you have said,’” (Luke 1:38).  The mood of the verb expresses not reluctant compliance but willing eagerness, as if to say, “Yes, yes, please let it happen as you have said.”  The gift of the Spirit is in no sense imposed upon her but is gladly received by her.

The question is whether that willing receptivity is to be seen as itself part of the gift and work of the Spirit to and in Mary, or as an independent act having its origin in Mary herself.  In the second case it is by the grace of God and also by the autonomous self-originated act of Mary in receiving that grace that Christ is formed in her.  There is a strong strain in Roman Catholic teaching that emphasizes Mary’s fiat, as though God had sought and she had given her permission for the incarnation to happen through her, so that in her own way she would become co-originator of Christ and of the salvation that he brings.  On such a view Christ comes out of the free consensus of the two autonomous decisions of God and Mary.  This kind of Mariology exhibits the same tendencies as Arminian Protestantism which, of course, does not mention Mary, but insists that the reception of Christ and his salvation depends not only on the grace of God but on the free autonomous decision of the believer to accept that grace.

We are, therefore, left asking the question: Is Mary’s acceptance given by her to God or is it also, and more fundamentally, given to her by God?  Cardinal Suenens, true to the tradition of Augustine, wants to say the latter.  “The faith with which Mary received the offer of God is itself a special act of the Spirit in her.  He is the source of all faith.  Mary’s free and active collaboration was permeated and sustained by the Spirit who worked in her “both the will and the action,” (Philippians 2:13).  She remained totally receptive to his action in the very moment of her free response.  Mary does not take the initiative: it is the Spirit who invites her and gives her the grace of surrendering totally to him.  God’s sovereign freedom shines forth in Mary.”  In other words, God’s Spirit creates and evokes her, and our, believing response to him.  We must indeed answer for ourselves, but we do not and cannot answer by ourselves.  The ability to respond freely to the promise of Christ’s coming is the work of the Spirit in us.  Throughout the book we shall be concerned both with the Spirit’s relation to Christ, and also with his relation to us and our freedom.

4. The story of Mary presents the Spirit as the Lord and giver of life. “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you,” (Luke 1:35), refers not at all to an act of divine begetting like the amours of the gods of Olympus with mortal women, but to an act of divine re-creation, the model for which is in Genesis 1.  As the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep at the first creation (Genesis 1:2), so the same Spirit with the same creative intent hovers over Mary at the start of the new creation.  No Jewish father, not even Joseph of the house and lineage of David, could produce this new beginning out of himself: it takes a creative act of God.  Mary stands for Israel; she is the daughter of Zion par excellence, but the tradition of Israel which she embodies has to receive its fulfillment not from within but from outside itself.  The fulfillment of the old by the new does not emerge from the old by a process of immanent evolution.  Rather the new is given to the old by an act of divine creativity worked upon it.  Those who are born to be God’s children are born “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God,” (John 1:13).

The story of the virgin birth makes us ask questions about the spontaneity and creativity of the Holy Spirit and how that is related to what goes before it.  How is the work of the Spirit in redemption continuous and how discontinuous with his work in creation?  When we speak of the Spirit are we speaking of God’s immanence in the natural order or of the breaking in of the supernatural order?  Such questions will be with us all the way.

5. The Spirit is the creator of fellowship around the Son. The togetherness of Mary and Joseph consists in the guardianship of the one who has been entrusted to them, who is the bond of their marriage, although not its product.  Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1:39-45) find a new kinship in their motherhood of two children who are born as a result of two different divine interventions that correspond to the part that each child will play in the drama of redemption.  Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) find fellowship with Mary in their discernment that the promises of God will have their long-awaited fulfillment in her son.  The Holy Spirit creates from the first a fellowship centered on Jesus, each member of which is gifted to play a distinctive part in receiving and proclaiming Jesus.  Mary has her own unique place near the center of that fellowship, because she is what no one else could ever be, the theotokos, the mother of God.  The Spirit is from the first the creator of koinónia, life-sharing togetherness.  He is a community-speaking Spirit.

6. The action of the Spirit in Mary produces both prophecy and praise. When Mary is filled with the Spirit she begins to sing Magnificat, and she begins to contemplate all that God has done for her and “to treasure it in her heart,” (Luke 2:19, 51).  The Spirit in her is the Spirit of worship, prayer, and contemplation, who enables her to discern and interpret what God is doing in her and around her.  To receive this Spirit is to share the counsel of God and to respond in the praise of God.  By him we receive what God has to give, by him we offer all we are to God.  From first to last he is the Spirit of prayer.  We must look at what that means for our praying.

7. What the Spirit does in Mary is the beginning of the future. The conception of Jesus does not carry its whole meaning in itself: it can be understood only in the context of what it leads to in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in Pentecost and what lies beyond.  In the Spirit Jesus who is the world’s future is born into the world’s present, the end of time appears in the middle of time, the last things start happening in history.  Every coming of the Spirit is an eschatological act, because in it the ultimate future to which God is leading us invades, touches, and transforms our temporal lives.  The Spirit brings into time, first into the time of Mary and then into the time of all of us, Christ who has conquered death and is the eschatos Adam, the ultimate man, (1 Corinthians 15:45), who by the Spirit shares his humanity with us and begins to transform us into what God made us to be.  The Spirit in Mary inaugurates the eschaton and we must ask what it means that he does that in us as well.

It is therefore legitimate to see in Mary a preliminary presentation of the whole New Testament work of the Holy Spirit.  In her he is indeed the Giving Gift.  He is given to her by the Father, and, by his work in her, he gives her God’s Son to be her son also.  In her story we have a first glimpse of what the Spirit is going to do in Jesus and of what through Jesus he is then going to do in us all.

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