Understanding the Holy Spirit Through the Life of the Virgin Mary

Photography: Chelsea Zimmerman

As we look at Holy Spirit in the life of the Virgin Mary I want you to think about what our Catechism says at the start of its section on Mary “What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines, in turn, its faith in Christ (CCC 487).”  There can be NO separating the Mother from the Son, she is our Mother because she bore the Son of God in her womb, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she conceived, thus from the beginning of Christ’s earthly life, the Spirit was always present to Him and to his mother.  Through this reflection, we will look at different titles and events of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a way to understand the Holy Spirit and therefore to become more open to His presence in our lives.

The Immaculate Conception

First, we will address the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.  This dogma was promulgated formally by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus.  He wrote,

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

This act of preservation from original sin was done in and by the Holy Spirit, who was won by the merits of the timeless act of Jesus Christ, Our Savior. The Holy Spirit fashioned Mary, in such a way, so that, she may become the Mother of God.  Being shaped by the Spirit should not scare us.  The Holy Spirit has been shaping us since our baptism, crafting us into the creature we are called to be by the Father.  Mary, in a way, shows us the beautiful work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life.  Mary shows us what true life in the Spirit is like.  The life of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, shows us how the Holy Spirit, who is penetrating us to the depths of our souls, bonds us to the Trinity, the God who is Love!  By the title of the Immaculate Conception, we acknowledge the uniqueness of the Spirit’s work in the Life of Mary.

Mary Spouse of the Spirit

With that, I want to move us into the direction of another title for Mary:  The Virgin Mary, Spouse of the Spirit.  First, let us address the word ‘spouse.’  In Catholic teaching, one way we speak of the spousal union is the two become one, first by their wills, (then by their flesh).  The joining of the wills is the key meaning that applies to this title of Mary.  The will of Mary is so attuned and aligned with the Holy Spirit, It is as if they were one.  The best way, the Church has been able to describe the joining of wills is by the spousal image.  No analogy is perfect, we must be aware, that there are drawbacks to them, however, I find this particular title of Mary most enriching to my own life.  Here are two thoughts to accentuate my point:

“The Mother of God is a creature.  It follows that all she is, she has from God.  But she is God’s most perfect creature.  For this reason, the homage paid to her is, by the very nature of the case, paid to God Himself.  If we admire a statue, we honor the artist who created this masterpiece.  If we honor Mary most holy we honor God.  The more we pay homage to the divine perfections found in Mary, the more perfect is our homage to God […] (Conference, April 9, 1938)”  St. Maximillion Kolbe

The Holy Spirit drives and animates us through the world.  We are sealed in the Spirit, via Confirmation, and called forth to go forth and be missionaries for Christ in our lives.  However, the Spirit speaks, directs, and teaches, as He wills.  Mary witnesses to us the need and the result of allowing our will to be aligned with that of the Spirit.

The Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-36)

In terms of the Annunciation, there is one thing I want to look at and that is the notion of ‘overshadowing.’  This overshadowing is seen throughout the Old Testament:

Exodus 24: 15-16 – The Cloud rests upon the Mount Sinai, in the presence of Moses.

Exodus 40: 34-38 — Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting.

1st Kings 8:  9-11 – The Cloud rests upon the temple when the Ark is placed within it.

The overshadowing cloud Of the Holy Spirit indicates the presence of God.  A cloud has no definitive shape, a cloud is shapeless and therefore boundless, the same is viewed about the Holy Spirit.  The Christian tradition puts forward many symbols for understanding the Spirit.  These symbols do not tell us what the is because we know the Spirit is God, our symbols for the Spirit tells us about what the Spirit does.  Our symbols for the Holy Spirit help us to understand the acts, works, and power of the Spirit in the life of the Church and every Christian.   Hence, we can look at the Ark of the Covenant.  The Ark was made Holy not by a man willing it, but my God willing it.  The Cloud rested up the Ark. The language and symbolic ideas are used in the scene of the Annunciation.   Christ is the New Covenant between God and man, the lasting Covenant for all time, and Mary the one who bore Him in her womb, is His Ark.  She is the Ark of the New Covenant, through the cloud of the Spirit resting upon her making the conception of Christ possible.  The Spirit makes life possible, if we are open to the presence of the Spirit, Mary is the preeminent witness to this truth about the Holy Spirit.

The Visitation (Luke 1: 39-42)

 Life, as the Holy Spirit provides, makes possible and leads to a community of love, and what better proof is there than the scene of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.  Mary, out of love for her family, goes to be with her cousin.  Love does not isolate a person but pushes the person to go out and share it.  Through the presence of Mary, we see the love given to her by the Spirit, Jesus Christ, being shared with Elizabeth.  The love of the Spirit knows no bounds, because even the unborn child, John the Baptist, responded with joy and leapt in his mother’s womb because he experienced the divine love of the Spirit.  The community being formed now in the house of Zechariah, is one of joy and love, with its foundation being the life given by the Spirit.   Our faith in the Trinity is expressed as a community of persons.  Three persons, 1 God.  The communitarian life of the Trinity has been offered to us.  Christ speaks about the Father’s house has many rooms, of which Christ himself is preparing for us (John 14).  The life of the Spirit lived out in this world, is a foreshadowing of the eternal promise made to the apostles by Christ in John 14.  Also, the oneness of community prayed for by Christ in John 17, will be fulfilled in the Spirit.  The Virgin Mary, as the exemplar of our race, is an important witness to this reality of love desired for by Christ and made manifest by the Spirit.

The Assumption (Revelation 12: 1)

The adult catechism says this about the Assumption “Mary experiences immediately what we all will experience eventually, a bodily resurrection like Christ’s own.”  The Church in her teaching about this point reaches out to our Byzantine brothers and sisters who make this prayer in their liturgy

“In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death (CCC 966).

It is through the Holy Spirit that the Resurrection occurs.  Love conquers death, a key aspect to the resurrection.  The Holy Spirit as St. Augustine teaches, is the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, poured forth for all of us.  Divine love personified is the Holy Spirit.  The unique relationship of Mary to the Spirit is yet again expressed through her assumption (or Dormition as the Eastern rites teach).  Her life shows us how the Spirit makes it possible that we will be made anew.  The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of the resurrection which Christ calls all to at the end of time.  The collect for the feast of the Assumption in the 1962 Missal reads

“Almighty and eternal God, who hast assumed the body and soul of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy Son, to celestial glory: grant, we beseech Thee, that always minded toward heavenly things, we may be sharers of the same glory.”

Like Mary, we are called to be like Jesus, which is done in and through the Spirit, who fashions and shapes us.  Since the Spirit is fashioning and making us into His holy temple (1st Cor. 3:16-17) the finally artisanal strokes of the Spirit will be realized in our bodily resurrection from the dead.  The assumption of Mary not only witness to this reality but helps to strengthen our hope in it.

Mary and the Carmelite Scapular

My Last words will be on the most beloved devotion of the Carmelites, which is the Brown Scapular.  We must always remember the scapular is a sign of Mary’s motherly protection of her children.  It is like a mother wrapping up her child to protect them and shelter them from the harsh weather that surrounds them.  Sometimes I feel as if the scapular is the swaddling clothe that Mary desires to wrap us in.  It is through the protection of her bosom that we can become more open to God and His will for us.  Mary can care for us in these ways because she has been cared for by the Holy Spirit.  Hence, the shelter of Mary’s embrace offers us a chance to listen to the gentle rhythm of breath, which is infused with the Spirit, so, be breathing with Mary as she holds us our very breath can be a form of prayer in the Spirit, who is the breath of life.  This love then becomes our root and thus, nourishes our mission to go out proclaim the love of God to all our brothers and sisters.

With that said we must always be careful, and remember the scapular is NOT a magical charm to protect us (this would be a form of idolatry), it is NOT an automatic guarantee of salvation, and it is NOT an excuse for failing to live up to the demands of the Christian life, which Christ makes possible.  Remember we are called to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).’  The Brown Scapular for us is a sacramental sign that the Church has approved of for over seven centuries.  We do not walk apart from the Church, we journey with, in, and through Her, just as Mary did, and the soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit.  The Scapular is a physical sign, to us and others, that we as individuals have made a decision to follow Jesus, like Mary.  Mary who was:  open to the Will and Love of God, guided by faith, hope and love, who was close to the needs of her people, and who prayed at all times.  Reflecting on the brown scapular Saint John Paul II wrote:

“This intense Marian life, which is expressed in trusting prayer, enthusiastic praise, and diligent imitation, enables us to understand how the most genuine form of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, expressed by the humble sign of the Scapular, is consecration to her Immaculate Heart.  In this way, the heart grows in communion and familiarity with the Blessed Virgin, “as a new way of living for God and of continuing here on earth the love of Jesus the Son for his Mother Mary.””  (Par. 4 of his Message to the Carmelite Family, March 25, 2001)

The Mysteries of God can never be exhausted.  The life of the Virgin Mary is a way for us to grow in love with the Holy Spirit who has been sent to us by Christ, the son of Mary.  Therefore, I pray that the Holy Spirit may continue to bless you this day and that Mary, our Mother, continue to protect you.


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2 thoughts on “Understanding the Holy Spirit Through the Life of the Virgin Mary”

  1. Our Lady had told St. Dominic that one day through the rosary and the scapular she would save the world. Her role described in Genesis as the crushing of Satan’s head is only possible due to the role she has as spouse of the Holy Spirit. Only a human so united to the Holy Spirit could bring this about.

  2. Pingback: MONDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

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