The angel’s announcement to Mary follows the same pattern: “And now you will become pregnant in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his kingdom will never end ”(Luke 1: 31-33).
The glow of a second trimester or the cooing of a baby in the soft light of dawn doesn’t promise here; Mary’s son will be Joshua by name, a military leader and successor to Moses; her son will occupy the throne of David and rule over the house of Jacob with an everlasting kingdom.
“Little wonder Mary is confused, even enchanted, by what she hears.”
No wonder Mary is confused, even bewitched, by what she hears. Gabriel therefore explains: “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 the Son of God ”(Luke 1:35). Again he answers her question, not with the birth mechanism, but with a description of her son. In both his initial promise and his answer to her question, the weight of the angelic words rests heavily on the impending reign of Mary’s unborn child.
It’s not the biology of conception even an inspired concept that takes the limelight in the Gospel of Luke – or Matthew for that matter. It is not the physiology of childbirth, not even a miraculous one. Nor is it the anatomy, not even the inexplicable anatomy, that is at the center of this story. It is the scope of the history of God – a remembering, saving, redeeming God who catalyzes these births to reshape history.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the emergence of Jesus from the Holy Spirit is reminiscent of a story that encompasses the greatness of creation, the miracle of the exodus, and the misery of a erring king.
In the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit is connected at the waist with the power that will overshadow Mary. This verb to overshadow (episkiasei) is evocative because, like so many nouns and verbs that are grouped around the Holy Spirit in Matthew and Luke, it is embedded in the history of Israel.
Israel’s poets, the psalmists, laid claim to that power. They knew that God’s urges could overshadow those who live under the protection of the Most High (Psalm 91: 4). They knew that God was a mighty Savior who, as the psalmist claims, “overshadowed my head in the day of battle.”
And most poignantly of all, when Israel, fresh from their exodus from Egypt, built a tabernacle – a sacred tent in which Moses met God – they recognized the cloud of God’s glory that overshadowed this tabernacle in the desert so much that “Moses “Unable to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:35).
Divine salvation. Divine guidance. Divine glory. All of this was tangible in the first days of Egypt’s liberation, long before the advent of another kingdom, Rome, which overshadowed Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph.
“Later in the Gospel of Luke, the verb to overshadow reinforces another renewal of the glory of God.”
Later in the Gospel of Luke, the verb to overshadow reinforces another renewal of the glory of God. At the transfiguration of Jesus “a cloud came and overshadowed it; and they were terrified when they entered the cloud. Then a voice came out of the cloud saying, ‘This is my son, my chosen one; listen to him! ‘”(Luke 9: 34-35).
That is tabernacle language. The overshadowing cloud, paired with the divine voice that repeats what Jesus heard at his baptism, conveys that God is present with Jesus, Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration, just as God protected Israel in Mount Sinai.
For now, the power of God, the Holy Spirit, will overshadow a simple Galilean girl receiving a direct, if disturbing promise. The Holy Spirit comes down to a sacred space again – not a tent now in an implacable wilderness, but the belly of a suddenly pregnant farmer.
Jack Levison holds the WJA Power Chair of Old Testament Interpretation and Biblical Hebrew at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. He is known for his pioneering work on the Holy Spirit and on biblical and theological topics. This column is an excerpt from his book An Unconventional God. Used here with permission from Baker Publishing, © 2020.
Also in this Advent series:
Advent reflection: an infinite grace
Advent Reflection: The Arrival of Liberation
Advent reflection: the emergence of Jesus
Advent reflection: holy eruption
Advent reflection: a burst of inspired blessing
Advent reflection: an explosive conversation