What happened between Mary and the Holy Spirit?
Scripture tells us precious little about this, the turning point of all salvation history. But from the fact that it resulted in the Incarnation of God, we can infer that this must have been an extraordinary encounter.
Luke 1 tells us two things about it. In the words of the angel Gabriel, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
At first blush, this description seems to understate what happened. We long for the sort of fantastic, awe-inspiring account of a divine manifestation like the lightning-flecked storm cloud that entranced the prophetic Ezekiel or the howling wind from heaven that showered tongues of fire on the heads of the apostles at Pentecost.
We don’t get any of that in Luke 1.
Or do we?
The text says much more than it appears to at first glance.
The sudden coming of the Spirit
The first detail about this encounter—that the Holy Spirit would come upon Mary—does not seem very informative. The language is ordinary enough in English. But in Greek the word, eperchomai, is used rarely in the New Testament.
In two instances it refers to the coming of the Holy Spirit—here and in Acts 1.
But the most common context in which the word is used is one involving the sudden onslaught of some calamity. Here’s an example, where Christ is talking about the end-times destruction of the earth, from Luke 21:35: “For as a snare shall it come upon all that sit upon the face of the whole earth” (Douay-Rheims). The word come upon is the same as in Luke 1. The New American Bible, Revised Edition, captures the sense of the word: “For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.”
Likewise, in Luke 11:22, the word is used to describe the attack of a stronger man on a strong man’s castle, in one of Jesus’ parables. And, in Acts 14:19, it describes the coming of a mob that had St. Paul stoned.
Can the coming of the Holy Spirit really be likened to these other comings? Indeed, the notion of a sudden powerful coming that even wounds is often how divine encounters are described in the Scripture. Consider Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:3, where “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him,” leaving him stunned and temporarily blinded. And, in the Old Testament, Jacob’s meeting with an angel becomes a wrestling match, which leaves the patriarch with a wounded thigh.
Earlier in the chapter, the gospel writer elaborates on the end times, using the same word:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (verses 25 to 26).
This is the power that came upon Mary—the power that could shake the heavens and leave its mark on the sun, the moon, and the stars. Of course, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Mary was not unwanted or violent. The encounter was a wholly consensual one. As Mary told Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Mary, in the fullness of the grace from God, was the only person in the world who could be espoused to the Holy Spirit—the only one who could bear the power that rattled the heavens and the earth. Perhaps this is why we see her in Revelation 12 “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
The overshadowing of the storm cloud
Now we begin to have some idea of what happened when the Holy Spirit “came upon” Mary.
But Luke tells us more: the power of the Most High overshadowed her. (Though we tend to associate the “Most High” with God the Father, we have good reason to see this verse as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Certainly, that conclusion seems the traditional view reflected in the creeds, where we profess that Christ as conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.)
The word overshadowed (in Greek episkiazō) also refers to both to “a vaporous cloud that casts a shadow” and to “a shining cloud surrounding and enveloping persons with brightness,” according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon. The lexicon suggests that the use of the word comes from the Old Testament “idea of a cloud as symbolizing the immediate presence and power of God.”
In Exodus 24, such a cloud is described:
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 (verses 15 to 17).
Another fearsome cloud is described by the prophet Ezekiel:
As I watched, a great stormwind came from the north, a large cloud with flashing fire, a bright glow all around it, and something like polished metal gleamed at the center of the fire (Ezekiel 1:4).
Such was the cloud that “overshadowed” Mary.
But her encounter with the “cloud” was on a whole other level—one that we can’t fully imagine or comprehend. Moses came out of the cloud with the law and Ezekiel with the gift of prophecy. But the cloud left Mary with something far, far greater than either the law or prophets.
image: The Virgin Mary, Toledo Cathedral / Shutterstock