In Common Worship, the ever growing collection of alternative services of the Church of England, there are on pages 302-303 of the first volume special provisions for the period “from Christmas Day until the Eve of the Epiphany”. Amongst these are three Prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayer, and in each of them, in referring to the conception and birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the expression “by the power of the Holy Spirit” is used. (E.g., “… by the power of the Holy Spirit, he took our nature upon him…”)
Where does this expression “by the power of the Holy Spirit” come from? It is from the 1970s Ecumenical Commission for the translation of common texts for the Liturgy and it was used in the version of the Creed in The Book of Alternative Services (1980) -- “Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit”. Happily “by the power of” was then dropped from the Creed used in Common Worship, where we find “from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary”, based on the original Greek. [ We may note that the translation of the Creed in The Book of Common Prayer from 1549 to the present day (1928 in the USA and 1962 in Canada) has “conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary” based on the Latin text.
So it seems that Common Worship has retained material from The Book of Alternative Services when it ought to have revised it so that it is in harmony with the translation of the Creed in the same book. Is this a case of careless editing? Or is there something special in “by the power of”? (We recall the theme of “empowering” from the 1960s?)
Of course, and very importantly to those who are theological sensitive, “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” is erroneous when used to point to the assuming of manhood in the Virgin’s womb by the only-begotten Son of the Father (which divine act is also at the same time Mary’s conception of Jesus). All procreation and reproduction in this world is according to the laws of nature and is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God present through the universe.
BUT, the unique conception by Mary, which is also the Incarnation of the Logos/Son, is directly brought to be by the immediate presence of the Person of the Holy Ghost, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. He is directly and immediately present in an unique manner in order to cause this miracle of miracles to occur and the salvation of the world to begin in and by the Word made flesh.
Your cat’s kittens and your dog’s puppies were conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit; but, the Son of God assumed human nature and Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Ghost present as a Divine Person.
Why the Ecumenical Commission decided in the 1970s to add “by the power of” to the Creed is a matter of debate. But the claim that it was an attempt to do justice to Luke 1:35 does not hold water!
The angel 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 called holy.”
“The Power of the Most High” points to the Shecinah (Exodus 40:38), the cloud of glory which signified the presence of YHWH (The LORD). The miracle of the virginal conception was by the personal action of God himself.
The expression “by the power of the Holy Spirit” in Common Worship detract from the full and real miracle of the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary, the very act which is also the Incarnation of the only Son of God!
The Revd Dr Peter Toon Advent 2004