One detail from the account of the Annunciation reveals the deep drama that took place in the conception of Jesus.
This is contained in the angel Gabriel’s promise to Mary in Luke 1:35,
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.
The promise is astonishing in its description of how Mary will encounter God. Little is said about how this happens — ultimately the virginal conception of Jesus remains a mystery. But we are granted one glimpse of the impending union of heaven and earth in the statement that the ‘power of the Most High will overshadow’ Mary.
In the Greek, the word is episkiazō, which, in the New Testament refers to a ‘vaporous cloud that casts a shadow’ according to Strong’s Concordance. What cloud might this be? In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI explains,
In terms of the language used, it belongs to the theology of the Temple and of God’s presence in the sanctuary. The sacred cloud — the shekinah — is the visible sign of God’s presence. It conceals the fact that God is dwelling in the house, yet at the same time points to it (Jesus of Nazareth, 29).
But the first descent of the divine cloud comes earlier. Exodus 19:16-19 records the event,
On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar, so that all the people in the camp trembled. But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the LORD had come down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The blast of the shofar grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God was answering him with thunder.
The story continues in Exodus 24,
So Moses set out with Joshua, his assistant, and went up to the mountain of God.
He told the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. Aaron and Hur are with you. Anyone with a complaint should approach them.” Moses went up the mountain. Then the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled upon Mount Sinai. The cloud covered it for six days, and on the seventh day he called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD was seen as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. But Moses entered into the midst of the cloud and went up on the mountain. He was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (vv. 13-18).
So what was the cloud that overshadowed Mary? It was nothing less than the same cloud of fire and thunder that consumed the top of Mt. Sinai. What was received by an entire mountain in the Old Testament was, in the New Testament, absorbed into the person of Mary.
In the Old Testament, Moses has to ascend the mountain to meet God. In the Annunciation, the cloud of fire descends to Mary — such was the power of her faith, the fullness of her grace, and her humble acceptance of what God has planned for her. As Psalm 24:3-5 says,
Who may go up the mountain of the LORD?
Who can stand in his holy place?
“The clean of hand and pure of heart,
who has not given his soul to useless things,
what is vain.
He will receive blessings from the LORD,
and justice from his saving God.”
On Mt. Sinai, God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. In Mary, God inscribed the fulfillment of the law—Jesus. As Jeremiah 31:33 declares,
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The law was written so deeply on the heart of Mary that it itself became flesh. She perceived the heart of the law as the Sacred Heart of Jesus resting within her. Through Mary, the law assumed life as a human being and spoke to us as the Word of God Incarnate.
In Mary there is thus an extraordinary fulfillment of Moses’ own yearning to see the face of God: Mary not only sees the face of God, she forms it in her own womb. God had to hide Moses as He passed by (see Exodus 33). Now, it is God Himself who is hidden within the person of Mary.
Seeing the Annunciation as another Sinai has implications for our daily walks of faith.
Do you want to encounter the divine fire? Mary will show you how.
Do you find yourself lost in the darkness? Mary will guide you through the cloud.
Looking for the way up the mountain to heaven? Mary will show you the way.
Want to see the face of God? Ask Mary to show Him to you.
To go up Mt. Sinai would indeed have been terrifying. Yet, in Mary, the ascent becomes one of sweetness, hope, and comfort. May we always journey in her as we seek out the fire of divine love.