“Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…”
At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the angel visits Mary and tells her that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). This opening act of Jesus’ story is meant to remind us of another beginning: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
Creation occurs when the Spirit of God broods over the formless abyss, and brings forth life out of nothing. Elsewhere, the Old Testament writers speak of the divine Spirit or Breath as the source of creation: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created” (Psalm 104:30). When God forms Adam from the ground — as recorded in Genesis 2, during the Bible’s second account of creation — the man is, at first, a lifeless clay sculpture. But then God breathes spirit into this clay, and it becomes a living being (Genesis 2:7).
So when the Spirit broods over the womb of Mary, we see a picture of God’s creative work happening all over again. Jesus is brought into being by the creative breath of God’s Spirit. An early Christian pastor, Hippolytus, said that when working in the Virgin’s womb, God “recreated the first-formed Adam” (Hippolytus, Commentary on Daniel). The first Adam led the human race astray. But here is a new Adam; a new beginning for the human family; a new ancestor who will lead us into life and joy.
Right from the start, then, Jesus’ life is drawn directly from the source of God’s own creative energy. Even in his mother’s womb, Jesus is permeated by the Spirit.
In Luke’s Gospel, the same Spirit that brooded over Mary’s womb is always flashing out and touching the lives of those who come into contact with Jesus. When Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth, the baby in the latter’s womb leaps for joy. Elizabeth also is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).
It is the same Spirit who flashes out when the woman with the flow of blood touches the hem of Jesus’ clothes and is instantly healed (“I know that power has gone out from Me,” Jesus says — Luke 8:43-48). It is the same Spirit who, when Jesus lies dead in the tomb, breathes life into his body so that death is burned up and consumed and the grave is emptied (Luke 24). And it is the same Spirit that flashes out on the day of Pentecost, so that tongues of fire descend upon the first Christians (Acts 2). The same Spirit that has continued to transform the lifeless rabble of frightened followers into fearless witnesses of the resurrection.
Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit. Jesus is the sender of the Spirit (see John 15:26-16:15). In Jesus, the Spirit creates a new beginning for the whole human race. That is what the church proclaims in the concise but astonishing words of the Apostles’ Creed: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Ben Myers is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at United Theological College
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