Tuesday, January 1, 2019
The True Handmaid
"Mary set out to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.' " -[ Luke 1: 39-45].
Mary, mother of Jesus, has been identified as the "handmaid of the Lord". In Luke 1: 38, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to announce that she will bear the Son of God, Mary replies to Gabriel: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
A handmaid is a female servant in ancient times. She may have been at times a slave, or a lowly employee. In some stories of the Bible, she is the consort of the mistress's husband.
In 1985, Margaret Atwood wrote the widely read, "The Handmaid's Tale", a dark inversion of the Biblical story, in which powerful, abusive leaders subjugate women, forbidding the women to own property, to work, to manage their finances or even to read. The Handmaids become a fertility class, organized and subjugated, to repopulate the earth after world-wide infertility.
And now this Christmas season, Professor Eric Sprankle, Minn. State University, has posted on social media that "the virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen."
Besides the immense unfairness of overlaying our modern sensibilities upon an ancient story and expecting a different result, the Atwood and Sprankle interpretations are subversions bordering on blasphemy.
At the same time, I know more than a few Christians who are amused by these misguided interpretations.
At Mary's meeting with Gabriel, she famously says, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."
Mary also says, "For nothing shall be impossible with God." -[Luke 1:37]. In accepting with joy her assignation as Mother of Jesus, Mary recognizes the Infinite Possibility of God. This is not a grim "sentence", it is the possibility of redemption and healing in the corrupt world of Rome.
After Mary gives birth to Jesus in the stable, Wise Men from the East visit to pay homage. Luke 2: 18 says, "After they had seen the child, they spread the message they had received about Him. But Mary treasured up all these things in her heart." Mary knew the special, even Divine qualities of her experiences. And she marveled over them.
Not only did Mary consent, she was honored, she marveled at this event, she was in awe.
Many who are not Catholic forget to keep reading their Bible until they stumble upon the Magnificat, also known as the hymn of praise of the Virgin Mary.
In Luke 1: 46-55, Mary sings glory to God: "My soul magnifies the Lord"- i.e., Mary's soul is a Light to reflect and amplify the glory of God.
"And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because He has regarded [held in utmost esteem] the lowliness of the handmaid; for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." Mary is no victim here, she has willingly accepted the honor bestowed upon her by God. All generations shall call Mary blessed, because God has esteemed the "lowliness of His handmaid." God has stooped low to make Mary great.
"And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud conceit of the heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty."
Mary is no subjugated and abject victim here. She is a heroine, who is lifted up from lowly status, to become the Mother of Love, and the Mother of a worldwide, eternal movement to topple corrupt power and to elevate the lowly. Through Mary, God has "scattered the proud in [their conceit], and has put down the mighty from their thrones. . . the rich he has sent away empty."
The rich, already being filled with their own conceit, have no room for God. They have already possessed more than enough bounty in this Life, and so they do not thrive in the Next.
Mary is the epitome of, "The humble shall be exalted."
Mary is no passive subject, but an active catalyst for spiritual and social change. To say she is nothing more than a victim of Divine violence is a total mischaracterization and misreading of the very words on the page.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, "Mary is like a magnifying glass that intensifies our love of her Son." If we all could emanate only half of her Light, we would live in a vastly brighter world.
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