The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Pentecost takes the heat for being the primary way the church talks about the Holy Spirit, and rightly so! It is the birthday of the church, the day the Holy Spirit descended in greater fullness. There was fire and wind and the understanding of other languages! The manifest presence of God came in a powerful way. However, the Holy Spirit did not begin His work here.
When we take a broader look at the work of the Holy Spirit outside of that event in Acts, we discover an actor who is present when words are spoken. The third person of the Trinity was present at creation. Genesis 1:2 records that “…the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” The Spirit was at work over the waters, creating, and out of chaos came order. A silent moment broken only by God speaking creation into being. Sound travels a long way over water.
There was another silent moment interrupted by the spoken word of God. The first few verses of the Gospel of John report, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God spoke the Word and the Word became flesh. The incarnation of Christ is covered in the work of the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of a young woman’s womb.
Mary’s conception was a hidden but not-so-hidden encounter. It was hidden as the angel discreetly arrived and announced that she was the chosen one to carry the Son of God. It was hidden as the Word began to grow and live within her. It was hidden in her heart as she pondered what all this meant for an unwed mother – likely trying to keep her pregnancy concealed for as long as her frame would allow. And it was hidden to the world to gestate something much larger into being. This has implications for us as God speaks the Word and the Spirit recreates in our lives, our mission, our ministry, and our calling. The timing of that incubation period can be holy.
The world was changed by the coming of Christ, which was only made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit and the willingness of Mary. The words spoken by Mary may hold as much significance as does God speaking life, the Word, into existence. Hear her words again, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She could have said no. Though she must have been terrified, as would anyone in her position, she allowed the hidden work of the Spirit to be made unhidden by her choice—by her very words.
This conception is not so unlike what happens to us as we encounter the Holy Spirit and His work begets new life in us. The hidden work of the Spirit also incarnates the Word of God in the church. We, like Mary, have been gifted with the sacred work of being Christ-bearers to the world. This is only made possible by our receptivity and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God invites and sometimes requires our cooperation for his complete creative will to become unhidden.
The hidden work of the Holy Spirit in Mary before and during her pregnancy and the unhidden work at the moment of Christ’s birth embodies what was happening over the waters at creation and what was yet to come at Pentecost. The action of the Holy Spirit at Christmas seems to be a foreshadowing of what is to come as the baby emerges from the dark and what was invisible becomes visible—what was inaudibly being created now finds breath and interrupts the silent night.
The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach. It literally means breath. Interestingly enough, ruach, that which you cannot see or touch, is a noun. It is a noun that has action. It moves. It breathes. It creates. To say the word even sounds like wind. It was this Ruach that spoke creation into existence and breathed life into Adam’s lungs. It was this Ruach that visited Mary and again breathed life for the Second Adam. And it was this Ruach that descended at Pentecost and made the sound of a mighty wind blowing.
There are many places you can visit in the Holy Land that give credence to Biblical events happening “in this spot.” One of those places is the Church of the Annunciation. The site is the location of two thousand years worth of buildings over a cave believed to be the site where Gabriel told Mary she would conceive and bring forth the Son of God. And despite its ornately decorated outside area with pictures of Madonna and Child from all over the world, it is likely not a stop on the tour that protestants get all worked up over because we tend to avoid talking about Mary’s virginity. This discussion will leave a confirmation class leader breathless and red. And yet, do we not confess this truth every time we recite the Apostle’s Creed? We nod to the fact that Baby Jesus is God’s Son, though it is Joseph who appears in all the Hallmark greeting card versions of the story we tell at Christmas.
The cave where Mary would have had an encounter with the Holy Spirit is also the place where she consented to allow the Holy Spirit to work in her. Having descended those very stairs to the lowest point geographically possible today at the site of the Church of Annunciation, it stands out as one of those moments where the presence of the Holy Spirit was so heavy I could hardly stand. This was no indication to me that this was the actual place where the “Word became Flesh.” Rather, it was a moment I consented to allow the Holy Spirit to take residence in me—an incarnational moment. A Christmas moment. A Pentecost moment.
The work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to hushed whispers or to violent winds. He operates in both hidden and unhidden ways. From Creation to the Annunciation to Pentecost, all are filled with the manifest presence of God. Refreshing our understanding of how the same Holy Spirit at Creation was present when Mary conceived allows us to reflect on the ways in which the Spirit has been at work in us—creating and recreating. It also gives us a better vocabulary for Pentecost as we say with Mary, “let it be with me according to your word.” As we enter into these days of Advent, I pray you will have profound Ruach-filled moments, where in the silence God still speaks, where the hidden and unhidden work of the Spirit re-creates in you again.
Questions for further reflection:
- What new thing is the Spirit trying to create in his church or in us as individuals?
- Where are the places that we can consent to the Spirit as Mary did saying, “Let it be unto me according to your word”?
- What discipline or practice might allow space for the Holy Spirit to conceive in us this Christmas?