Mary: Icon of the Spirit
Last month we reflected on Mary the mother of the Church as portrayed by St John in the climactic Calvary scene of his Gospel. This month let us turn to the same theme as revealed to us by St Luke in his account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles.
At first sight the evidence is disappointing. Mary is given only a very brief mention in the flrst chapter of Acts. She is listed with the apostles and a few other disciples who were waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (1:12-14).
However, although he says little about her on that occasion, Luke obviously intended the opening chapters of his Acts of the Apostles to evoke for his readers the atmosphere and the themes of the opening chapters of his Gospel. The Gospel begins with an account of the birth of Jesus, and the Acts begins with an account of the birth of the Church. In both accounts the Holy Spirit and Mary play significant roles.
However, some important differences between the two scenes should be mentioned. At the Annunciation Mary had the more prominent part and the Holy Spirit was merely mentioned. But at Pentecost the roles are reversed: Mary is merely mentioned, while the Holy Spirit plays a very dramatic role. Moreover in the Gospel Mary is alone when the Spirit overshadows her, whereas in the Acts she is pictured as part of the community of disciples who receive the Spirit.
At the Annunciation Mary clearly became the mother of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit there was a new creation. Out of the nothingness of Mary’s virginal womb a new being was fashioned – the Word of God made flesh.
At Pentecost there was another creative act of God. Something new came into being. And the agent of this new creation was the Holy Spirit, the creative power of God. Out of the confusion and fear that had gripped the hearts of the group of dispirited disciples the Spirit fashioned a united community of apostles, full of energy and zeal for preaching the Gospel. The Church was born, the spiritual Body of Christ, ready to carry on his saving work in the contemporary world.
This transformation from a pusillanimous group of men and women into a dynamic community of disciples was primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. But Mary was there too. And we can wonder if again she had a motherly role to play, analogous to the one she played at the Annunciation.
We are now in the realm of theological speculation, but perhaps we can argue in favour of this by invoking the parallel with Luke’s account of the Annunciation. There Mary became the mother of Christ by conceiving Him in her womb.
At Pentecost there is obviously no question of a physical conception. But Mary does once again cooperate with the Holy Spirit in bringing forth a new creation – the mystical Christ, the Church. 0And just as at the Annunciation Mary’s unique contribution to the conception of the Son of God was to give Him his humanity, can we say that her contribution at the birth ofthe Church was to give the disciples their “discipleship”? Although the Holy Spirit was the power which brought about the Incarnation of God, Mary had something to contribute which the Holy Spirit did not have. She was human; the Spirit was not. And so she alone gave human nature – her nature – to the Word of God. And “the Word was made flesh”, i.e. became human.
Similarly, although the Holy Spirit is the one who brings forth new disciples in the community of disciples which is the Church, nevertheless He is not a disciple himself. He is God, the Spirit of Christ – not one of his disciples. But Mary is the frst disciple, the model to which all other disciples must conform, and she is “mother” in as much as she gives her nature (her discipleship) to new members of the Church.
Just as the Spirit fashioned the Word in the likeness of Mary (a human being) at the Incarnation, so He fashioned the Church in the likeness of Mary (disciple, virgin, mother) at Pentecost. Thus Mary may indeed be called Mother of the Church.
Icon of the Spirit
Mary is truly a Woman of the Spirit not only because she responded to his slightest whisper and was filled with his grace and gifts but also because He was able to accomplish great things in and through her. She shines out as the perfect example of what the Holy Spirit can accomplish in human persons, if no obstacles are placed in the way of his action.
The Eastern Church calls her the “Icon of the Spirit”. The Holy Spirit is the most “invisible” of the Three Persons of the Trinity. He can be detected only through his efforts – through the persons who are transformed by his grace and do great things through his power. By beholding Spirit-flled persons we can come to knowledge of the Spirit himself. An icon is a representation which although material leads the beholder to perception of divine mysteries. Similarly in beholding Mary we are led to knowledge of the Spirit.
Mary was ever responsive to his touch. She wholeheartedly consented to his action within her and placed not the slightest obstacle in his path. He filled her with his grace and gifts, which Mary did not regard as simply her private possession. Instead she knew that his gifts were for the service of God and his saving plan.
She was the charismatic woman – not necessarily in the sense that she displayed extraordinary gifts (such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, or miracles), but in the sense that charisms are gifts for the upbuilding of the Church.
The last glimpse of Mary we are given in the New Testament is of her in the midst of the Apostles, praying with them and receiving the Spirit. She as the mother ofJesus takes her place in the heart of the community of his disciples. This enduring memory of her has lasted down through the centuries and is still with us today. In the Church we find her and there she will always be – the perfect disciple, the Icon of the Spirit.
- The eighth in the series “Images of Mary Today” and the last of four reflections on Mary and the Holy Spirit. Written by Pat Bearsley SM.