Unless we see Mary in relation to the Holy Spirit, we will never understand her role in the Church.
“The Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life” (St Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John).
The Holy Spirit first came upon Mary at her Immaculate Conception, preserving her from original sin and filling her with grace. She was filled with the Spirit all through her life, but at certain moments received a greater outpouring of the Spirit: at the Annunciation, on Calvary, and on Pentecost. At each of these moments the Holy Spirit changed Mary. In what way and why did it matter?
The Holy Spirit changed Mary by making her holy and by giving her a new mission. The role of the Spirit is not only to make us holy, but also to give us a mission in the Church. As St John Paul put it, “The Holy Spirit is indeed the principal agent of the whole of the Church’s mission” (Mission of the Redeemer, no. 21). With that in mind let’s dig a little deeper into these three moments in Mary’s life.
The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “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” (Lk 1:35). At that moment when Mary gave her consent, she became the Mother of God by becoming the mother of Jesus, who is God. That was a huge change for her, unique in the history of the human race. But that shouldn’t make us feel that Mary is distant from us. The mission she received then was not so much for herself but for us. Her mission was to give us Jesus in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God who came to earth to free us from our sins. The mission of Jesus depended on Mary. Without her, we wouldn’t have him. For many Christians, Mary’s mission stops here. But the Gospel leads us deeper.
“Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (Jn 19:25-27) What was going on? Certainly Jesus cared about his mother’s welfare and as a loving son wanted to provide for her. But John’s Gospel has layers of meaning, so there’s more to it.
The beloved disciple is never named in the Gospel. Many think that is because he represents the beloved disciples of every age, that is, all of us. Jesus was telling the disciple not just to take care of his mother, but also to accept her into his life of faith. In telling Mary “Here is your son,” Jesus was giving her many spiritual sons and daughters who would follow Jesus throughout the ages. Mary would help the beloved disciple more than he could help her, because of her spiritual motherhood.
With that gesture, Jesus finished his mission on earth and the Gospel tells us “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30). Certainly that means that he died. But again, the text has a deeper meaning. Jesus is handing over the Holy Spirit to the Church, represented there by his mother and the beloved disciple (see I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Yves Congar, p. 52). This will become more definitive after Easter, but John is bringing out a connection between Jesus’ death on the cross and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Mary, receiving the Spirit again, is changed and is given the new mission of being the mother of the beloved disciples and indeed all of us.
Finally, on Pentecost we find Mary with the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, and “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). This new outpouring of the Holy Spirit again brought to Mary a new change and a new mission. This has to do with her role in the Church. Vatican II said of Mary that “the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united with the Church: the Mother of God is a figure of the Church in the matter of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ” (Lumen Gentium, no. 63).
Mary received a new motherhood in the order of grace (see John Paul, Mother of the Redeemer) by which she leads us to a deeper knowledge and love of her son, Jesus. As disciples, the more we ourselves are filled with the Holy Spirit, the more we will be changed to fulfill the mission God gives us. And the more we welcome Mary into our own lives as disciples, the more effective we will be.
Mary, Queen of Apostles, pray for us!
Mary, Queen of Apostles, pray for us!