The Holy Spirit of Christmas

In the midst of all the sermon and service preparations associated with the Christmas season we often fail to appreciate the role of the Holy Spirit in the events celebrated. While we are right to focus on the wonder of the eternal Son taking human flesh and entering our world, we can overlook the roles of both the Father and the Spirit in what was happening. But if we are genuinely paying attention to the textual record of those events, we see the Spirit’s role is vital.

Interestingly, he is mentioned in the birth narrative of John the Baptist before he appears in the birth narrative of Jesus. The angel who appeared to Zechariah in the temple told him that the son Elizabeth was to bear would be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth’ (Lk 1.15). Then, when Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy – when the already pregnant Mary went to visit her – the moment of their meeting was marked by the Spirit’s intervention. ‘When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Lk 1.41). (Although Luke does not state it explicitly, it is hard not to see the Spirit’s involvement in the baby’s reaction.) But when Elizabeth opens her mouth, ‘In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’ (Lk 1.42). Such an extravagant claim (given the circumstances of these two women) was in itself evidence of its God-breathed source.

Then there comes yet another reference to the Spirit’s being at work in the prelude to Jesus’ birth. When John was born and Zechariah’s speech was restored, Luke tells us, ‘Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied’ (1.67). And, even though the bulk of his prophetic utterance concerned the unique role his son would fulfil as the one who would ‘go before the Lord to prepare the way for him’ (1.76), its ultimate focus is on the coming of the Lord himself as the bringer of salvation.

So, quite apart from what the Holy Spirit was doing concurrently in the lives of Mary and Joseph in preparation for the Messiah’s birth, he was working more widely to ensure that birth would be understood in all its wonder.

As Luke directs us to Mary and the promise of the child she would bear, there too we are brought face to face with the Spirit and his role in the incarnation. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary in Nazareth to announce to her that she would bear a son, who would be unique both in his Person and the manner of his conception, once more the Holy Spirit is mentioned. When Mary hears this news, quite understandably she asks, ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?’ (Lk 1.34). To which the angel replies, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (1.35).

What Gabriel said to Mary, he repeats to Joseph to allay his worst fears when he had learned that his betrothed wife was expecting a child. The angel told him, ‘do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’ (Mt 1.20-21).

Even with all these quiet, but hugely significant interventions by the Spirit in the events leading up to the conception and birth of Jesus, Luke mentions one other action on the Spirit’s part that took place after the child had been born. It happened when Mary and Joseph took their new-born son to Jerusalem for the purification rites demanded by the Law of Moses.

Although the young couple went up to the temple with no expectation of being acknowledged in any way, a stranger approached them and took an uncanny interest in their little boy. Taking the child in his arms, he burst into spontaneous praise to God that made extraordinary claims about the infant he was cradling. Although Mary and Joseph could only have been taken aback by this encounter and the prophetic-sounding words bound up with it, Luke is the one who tells us as readers what lay behind it.

It turned out that Simeon, the stranger in this encounter, was in fact a man who was ‘righteous and devout’ and was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’, but also that ‘the Holy Spirit was upon him’ (Lk 2.25). More than that, his action and his outburst of what seemed like spontaneous praise were actually prompted by the Holy Spirit (1.27).

Some 33 years would elapse before Jesus himself, on the night of his arrest and the eve of his crucifixion, would provide a detailed revelation of who the Holy Spirit is and what his role would be in making God known and pointing and drawing people to Christ for salvation. This teaching forms a key strand in Jesus’ preparation of his disciples for all that was to unfold for him over the next 60 hours or so, and for them after his ascension (Jn 13.1-16.33). So it was only as Luke and Matthew wrote their gospel records – not only as instruments of God’s revelation in the hands of his Spirit, but with an understanding of the Holy Spirit that no-one had prior to Pentecost – that they could give their clear and detailed accounts of the Spirit’s role in the incarnation of Christ found in their Gospels.

In the events themselves, the Holy Spirit had acted in a way that showed he was content to be in the background. In every aspect of the words spoken at his instigation by Elizabeth, Zechariah and Simeon, their focus was on Jesus as the promised Christ. So also, as Mary was becoming increasingly conscious of the tiny bundle of mystery growing in her womb, the Holy Spirit was delighted for her to focus on the unborn Christ and not on him as the One who had joined the eternal Son to an unfertilised egg in her body.

In all of this the Holy Spirit’s actions were consistent with his way of working. Although he is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Son and has always enjoyed the mutuality of the unique communion that exists within the godhead, it is his pleasure to draw the attention of all creation to the One who came to bring redemption. In that sense he has no desire to take centre-stage in the Christmas narrative. Nevertheless he should surely be acknowledged. For without his involvement, as much as that of the Father, there would be no Christmas. Opera trinitatis ad extra indvisa sunt!

Mark Johnston