Mary and The Holy Spirit

Monday 4th April 2005
Mary and the Holy Spirit
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield

She could not remember when she first felt the Holy Spirit moving within her. She could not pin it down to a particular incident or sensation but by the time she had a vision in which she was told of the way in which her first child would be born, it wasn't such a shock; she had not known how she was a special child of God but she knew that she was. That is why she was so ready with her answer, that is why she was able to sooth Joseph and then calm her strange cousin, Elizabeth. It was all part of a whole; she could not see the complete picture, only God could do that, but she knew enough to know that if she willingly did what God wanted she would be all right. Without that assurance her conception, pregnancy and delivery would have been a psychological and social disaster. Whether you think of the dark prognostications of Simeon in St. Luke or the exile and slaughter in St. Matthew, nobody without immense inner strength could have borne what Mary bore.

We must not be misled by the high Renaissance imagery of mary, a smiling and serene 20-something in a designer stable and then, 30 years later, a drawn but serene still 20-something standing at Golgotha, all blue, sumptuous robes and halo. She lived in a brutal world dominated by fear and uncertainty, violence and prejudice where women counted for nothing other than child bearing and domestic service. The stable was almost certainly a cave; Golgotha was a rubbish dump; Palestine was occupeid by a hostile and rapacious government. Without the Holy Spirit Mary would have been cowed and killed by what she had to bear.

It is, then, helpful to see Mary's Immaculate Conception, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as a necessary precursor to the Virgin Birth of Jesus with which it is sometimes confused; the word could not have been made flesh within Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit unless she had been under The Spirit's special protection from the beginning of her being. These two events are the first on a continuum in Mary's life which link her almost mesmerically to the Holy Spirit.

For more than a thousand years, the idea of the special human purity of Mary persisted against the prejudices and pronouncements of prelates, theologians and even saints. It was in the earthy faith of ordinary people that the idea of Mary's Immaculate Conception took root. You won't find it in the Gospels; you won't find it in the writings of the Fathers of the Church; and you won't find it in the massive tomes of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest theologian of the Christian Church and immensely more sympathetic to women than his contenmporaries. Not long after the death of St. Thomas the ideaof Mary's special status was crystalised in the thought and writing of an Irishman (or maybe a Scotsman) by the name of Duns Scotus. And from there it grew until the patriarchy of the Church could no longer resist.

What Duns Scotus articulated was this; unlike us, who sin and are forgiven over and over again through Christ's redeeming Grace, Mary was prevented by that redeeming Grace from ever becoming a slave to the kingdom of this world in the first instance. Some people like to describe Mary's state as having been born without the stain of original sin but, even if you find the idea of original sin helpful, that does not quite meet the point. Many theologians, including st. Thomas, believed that Mary was without the stain of sin but they still did not believe in the Immaculate Conception.

That the human being within whose body the Word of God was to be enfleshed was totally without the possibility sin matters to us because it tells us about our own redemption as human beings. Mary is the icon of the potential of Christ her Son's redeeming grace. She, saved by His Grace, is the image of what we aspire to be. In her we see what we will be like when we come into the Kingdom.

Once this was grasped in faith it was not difficult to see how the movement grew for the acceptance that Mary was Assumed into Heaven. Again, this conviction grew up from the grass roots. If Mary had been immaculately conceived and was without sin all her life, what place could she be in logically other than Heaven? Should she not be beside Her son as the first yhuman occupant of the heavenly court?

These are not easy issues but at root we have some very basic theology to sustain us. The Word was made flesh through the incarnation of Jesus who was both man and God; and He took His humanity from Mary who was as perfect as a human being can be. Some feminists have a problem with the masculinity of Christ's human nature but we can surely take comfort from the fact that the most perfect pattern of pure humanity was a woman of lowly birth and estate who lived in a backward province of a great empire. We can only aspire to reflect the life of Christ in our lives but we can aspire to be like Mary.

The Holy Spirit was with Mary at her Immaculate Conception and at the conception of Jesus but, critically, the Spirit's presence was most powerfully felt at Pentecost which Mary must have experienced and which brought Her Son's Church into being, the church of which we, here, are a part.

And so the key to understanding the human perfection of the mother of God is the presence of the Holy Spirit; never was there such a close, purely human companion of the Holy Spirit as Mary. Perhaps that is why, prompted by Julian of Norwich, we think of the Holy Spirit as feminine. The conception of Jesus was not biological it was spiritual; the Holy Spirit was not a surrogate man but a spiritual force; and so much of what we associate with that spiritual force we might think of as feminine. We think of the dove of peace; we think of the tongues of flame at Pentecost, not flame that consumes but flame that warms and comforts; and we think of the Holy Spirit as the comforter, meaning the bringer of strength, the strength that sustains not tahe strength that overpowers.

In the Creator we have the male metaphor of the Father and in Jesus we have a real human male as the Son; so surely as imperfect human beings with our poor understanding we need a countervaling idea within our Trinitarian framework, the idea of the feminine Holy Spirit caring and strengthening, warm and wise, gentle and steady. The language of gender in the Father and the Spirit may only be metaphorical but metaphors have great power to sustain and encourage. us. Part of that metaphorical superstructure is that of the Church as the Bride of Christ. If you like this idea then why should not the Holy Spirit be the mother of the Bride?