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 Spiritwill 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.”