Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Identity Crisis: A Brief History of the Handmaid

"I am the handmaid..." These first words of Mary's Fiat are already offensive to our modern sentiments. The term "handmaid" immediately brings to mind the frumpy woman in the corner, sewing or doing some other domestic craft, remaining seen and not heard. The handmaid is lowly and overly submissive. She cannot think for herself; she has surrendered her freedom to the dominant figures, who are most likely male. This image does not sit well with modern women of action.

I propose that it is even more offensive than we might realize. As Catholics, we are always encouraged to read the New Testament in light of the Old, so I thought I would do some digging in order to come to a fuller understanding of this word, "handmaid." What I found was surprising and intriguing. The following reflections are those of a novice in such matters. If there are trained theologians/Biblical scholars out there who find my reflections offensive, please do present your suggestions in the Comments section. Additionally, I could not find any literature that addresses this connection, so if anyone knows of a book or other piece of literature that does, I would love to read it.

To begin, let's play a game. In the following two passages from the Latin Vulgate, which word is common to both (with the exception of "et")?

Genesis 21:10
"eice ancillam hanc et filium eius non enim erit heres filius ancillae cum filio meo Isaac"

Luke 1:39
"dixit autem Maria ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum et discessit ab illa angelus"

Do you see it? The answer is "ancilla." This is the word which is nicely translated as "handmaid" in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, however, the translation is a bit less friendly. The Ignatius Press Revised Standard Version translates "ancilla" as "slave woman." If you recall the story of Hagar the slave woman in the Old Testament, you'll realize just how unfriendly the word really is in this context. When I began my research into the meaning of the word "handmaid," I had expected to encounter Biblical passages like the famous Proverbs 31:13, with the handmaid being the one who works with her hands. I didn't anticipate that the word was also used to describe Abraham's concubine. 

Obviously, Mary was not an "ancilla" in the same what that Hagar was, and one has to take context and the manifold meanings of words into consideration. What fascinated me about this connection is that it further demonstrates Mary's radical humility. By calling herself the handmaid of the Lord, Mary hearkens back not only to the domestic images of woman's role in the household, but also to what many would consider to be the lowest of the low women figures in the Old Testament. Mary is often compared to the matriarchs of the Old Testament, but she does not say "I am the matriarch of the Lord." This radical humility is why we can turn to her in our most desperate moments of despair and discouragement. Just as Christ did not come to save the righteous, but the sinner, so His Mother does not shirk from our weakness, but hands it over to her Son, repeating to us her admonition to the servants at the wedding of Cana: "Do whatever He tells you.

So what does all this say about what it means to be a woman? At first glance, Mary's reference to herself as "handmaid" and its Biblical roots seem to have no bearing on the modern notion of woman. After all, Mary was an exceptional case, an immaculate model. And what's more, no woman nowadays would use an evidently chauvinist term like "handmaid" to describe herself. Mary's title is not only antiquated, it's offensive.

To delve more deeply into this question, let's compare the "bondage" of Hagar with the "handmaid" of the New Testament. Whereas Hagar's role is merely one of social status, perhaps the result of a lucrative sale, Mary's is a response to a call, to a gift. Mary could have rejected this role, which brought her social ruin and disgrace. She was not sold into it; she stepped into it. Here we see a paradoxical relationship between freedom and service: in Mary's submission to the will of God, she is more free than her Old Testament counterpart. And yet her submission is so radical, so extreme, that it would not be accurate to simply describe her as an "independent woman." Rather, from the moment she responds to the Father's call, her life is inextricably bound to her Son, to her family---to her God. 

This is not to say that the rest of Mary's life was merely bondage and that she was merely a passive player. Her Fiat did not end with the conception of Christ, but resonated in every moment of every day. Every word she spoke to her Son, every lesson she taught Him, every tear she shed at His passion and death---she could have run away at any moment. But she persevered, and for her faithfulness she was crowned as Queen of Heaven and Earth. The matriarch, the bond woman, the prostitute---not only are all redeemed in Christ's sacrifice, but they also receive a new model in Mary, the exalted handmaid. In this movement, Mary's message to women is that submission is not necessarily oppression, that surrender is not necessarily defeat, that service is not slavery. In fact, we see a woman who is truly free to love, to give of herself, and in so doing, to be exalted.

Monday, April 23, 2012

St. George's Looks Towards Christmas

Yes, we are a Scottish family, but we do love Saint George of Merry England. In fact, the first book we ever bought for our daughter was the classic children's book by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman---a great author/illustrator combo. The book is great for boys or girls, since it has a beautiful female character named Una as well as the noble and fearless Saint George. To my mind, there are two things that make this book extra special:
  1. The illustrations are spectacular. Not only are the actual pictures amazing, but each page has intricately designed borders with flowers, symbols and depictions of events in the book. And perhaps best of all, St. George is no pretty boy, and the dragon is actually ferocious, just like a dragon should be.
  2. The book really lends itself to out-loud, dramatic reading. There's one page (page 15 in our copy) that is just a long paragraph describing the dragon in detail, with such great descriptions as, "He reared high, monstrous, horrible, and vast, armed all over with scales of brass fitted so closely that no sword or spear could pierce them...His head was more hideous than tongue can tell, for his deep jaws gaped wide, showing three rows of iron teeth ready to devour his prey. A cloud of smothering smoke and burning sulfur poured from his throat, filling the air with its stench..."  And that's only half of it!
And on the more adult end of things, there are some great traditions associated with Saint George's feast day. One of the great customs is to make dandelion wine for Christmas. If anyone here in Phoenix knows of a large dandelion pasture, please do let us know. We've seen lots of cactus blossoms lately, but not much in the way of dandelions. Perhaps some day we will grow our own field of dandelion "weeds," just so we can make this recipe:

2 qts dandelion flowers
3 lbs granulated sugar
4 oranges
1 gallon water
yeast and nutrient

(From the site): This is the traditional "Midday Dandelion Wine" of old, named because the flowers must be picked at midday when they are fully open. Pick the flowers and bring into the kitchen. Set one gallon of water to boil. While it heats up to a boil, remove as much of the green material from the flower heads as possible (the original recipe calls for two quarts of petals only, but this will work as long as you end up with two quarts of prepared flowers). Pour the boiling water over the flowers, cover with cloth, and leave to steep for two days. Do not exceed two days. Pour the mixture back into a pot and bring to a boil. Add the peelings from the four oranges (again, no white pith) and boil for ten minutes. Strain through a muslin cloth or bag onto a crock or plastic pail containing the sugar, stirring to dissolve. When cool, add the juice of the oranges, the yeast and yeast nutrient. Pour into secondary fermentation vessel, fit fermentation trap, and allow to ferment completely. Rack and bottle when wine clears and again when no more lees form for 60 days. Open and drink for Christmas.

Until that day, we plan to have a delicious dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to honor dear Saint George. Here's a novena in his honor that is commonly said in the nine days before his feast, although you could also start today, or any time for that matter:

Almighty and eternal God! With lively faith and reverently worshiping Thy divine Majesty, I prostrate myself before Thee and invoke with filial trust Thy supreme bounty and mercy. Illumine the darkness of my intellect with a ray of Thy heavenly light and inflame my heart with the fire of Thy divine love, that I may contemplate the great virtues and merits of the saint in whose honor I make this novena, and following his example imitate, like him, the life of Thy divine Son.

Moreover, I beseech Thee to grant graciously, through the merits and intercession of this powerful Helper, the petition which through him I humbly place before Thee, devoutly saving, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Vouchsafe graciously to hear it, if it redounds to Thy greater glory and to the salvation of my soul. Amen.

O God, who didst grant to Saint George strength and constancy in the various torments which he sustained for our holy faith; we beseech Thee to preserve, through his intercession, our faith from wavering and doubt, so that we may serve Thee with a sincere heart faithfully unto death. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Faithful servant of God and invincible martyr, Saint George; favored by God with the gift of faith, and inflamed with an ardent love of Christ, thou didst fight valiantly against the dragon of pride, falsehood, and deceit. Neither pain nor torture, sword nor death could part thee from the love of Christ. I fervently implore thee for the sake of this love to help me by thy intercession to overcome the temptations that surround me, and to bear bravely the trials that oppress me, so that I may patiently carry the cross which is placed upon me; and let neither distress nor difficulties separate me from the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Valiant champion of the Faith, assist me in the combat against evil, that I may win the crown promised to them that persevere unto the end.

My Lord and my God! I offer up to Thee my petition in union with the bitter passion and death of Jesus Christ, Thy Son, together with the merits of His immaculate and blessed Mother, Mary ever virgin, and of all the saints, particularly with those of the holy Helper in whose honor I make this novena.

Look down upon me, merciful Lord! Grant me Thy grace and Thy love, and graciously hear my prayer. Amen. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Pope Speaks: Why Catholics Leave and Why He's Sticking Around

You hear a lot about people leaving the Church these days. In his interviews with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this unfortunate issue:

Seewald: ...it is difficult for many people these days to stand by the Church. Can you understand why people respond by leaving it in protest?

Pope Benedict XVI: I can understand it. I am thinking of course above all about the victims [of abuse] themselves. That it is difficult for them to keep believing that the Church is a source of good, that she communicates the light of Christ, that she helps people in life---I can understand that. And others, who have only these negative perceptions, no longer see then the overall picture, the life of the Church. All the more reason that the Church must strive to make this vitality and greatness visible again, despite all that is negative. 

Fortunately, the Pope has no plans to leave his own station as Holy Father anytime soon. Rumors of resignation continue to surface, but Pope Benedict confirmed at his birthday Mass that he doesn't plan to resign, echoing what he told Seewald back in 2010:

Seewald: The great majority of these [abuse] cases took place decades ago. Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular. Have you thought of resigning?

Pope Benedict XVI: When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.

We thank God especially this week for our courageous Pope, and pray for his continued strength and guidance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Pope Speaks: Why He Really Wore the Camauro

Reporters really like to make a big deal out of Pope Benedict XVI's fashion choices, from his shoes to his hats. In 2005, the Holy Father donned the camauro, a winter head covering that was last worn by Pope John XXIII, which caused a small media commotion.  BBC News called him the "Santa Pope" and interpreted the move as a seasonal fashion statement. "Although missing Father Christmas' trademark white furry bobble, the pope's timely discovery of the long-forgotten camauro seemed as much a nod to the season as to the chilly weather," said BBC reporters. In Light of the World, however, the Pope begs to differ:

"I wore it [the camauro] only once. I was cold, and I happen to have a sensitive head. And I said, since the camauro is there, then let's put it on. But I was really just trying to fight off the cold. I haven't put it on again since. In order to forestall over-interpretation." 

It's funny how the media can generate so much hype based on a last-minute, practical decision, isn't it? He was just cold, people!

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Monumental Week

Joseph Ratzinger as a boy
"I find myself on the last stretch of my journey in life, and I don't know what is awaiting me. I do know, however, that the light of God exists, that he is risen, that his light is stronger than any darkness and that God's goodness is stronger than any evil in this world, and this helps me go forward with certainty." 
                       -Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 85th birthday today, and this Thursday marks the seventh anniversary of his pontificate. The world is blessed to have such a witness and leader. For readers who don't already know, Pope Benedict XVI is the only Pope to have provided extensive interviews, which were recorded in a book by journalist Peter Seewald. Of the Pope's willingness to sit down for a six hour interview, Seewald writes, "The Church must not hide, was his attitude; the faith must be explained; and it can be explained, because it is reasonable. He impressed me as being young and modern, not a bean-counter, but rather a man who ventures bravely and retains his curiosity. A masterful teacher, and a disconcerting one as well, because he sees that we are losing things that we really cannot do without."  

Seewald's book, entitled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times was released in 2010. It provides an up-close and personal look at Pope Benedict XVI and his inspiring role as Pope of our times. We would recommend it to Catholics as well as non-Catholics who want to know more about the Church and the Pope. Over the next few days, to commemorate this special week for the Pope, we will post short passages from the book on various topics. Here's a tidbit of what Pope Benedict has to say about when he first became Pope:

"...the thought of the guillotine occurred to me: Now it falls down and hits you. I had been so sure that this office was not my calling, but that God would now grant me some peace and quiet after strenuous years. But then I could only say, explain to myself: God's will is apparently otherwise, and something new and completely different is beginning for me. He will be with me." 

Here is a traditional prayer from the Raccolta that would be especially appropriate for daily prayer this week:

O Lord, we are the millions of believers, humbly kneeling at Thy feet and begging Thee to preserve, defend and save the Sovereign Pontiff for many years. He is the Father of the great fellowship of souls and our Father as well. On this day, as on every other day, he is praying for us also, and is offering unto Thee with holy fervor the sacred Victim of love and peace. 

   Wherefore, O Lord, turn Thyself toward us with eyes of pity; for we are now, as it were, forgetful of ourselves, and are praying above all for him. Do Thou unite our prayers with his and receive them into the bosom of Thine infinite mercy, as a sweet savor of active and fruitful charity, whereby the children are united in the Church to their Father. All that he asks of Thee this day, we too ask it of Thee in union with him. 

   Whether he weeps or rejoices, whether he hopes or offers himself as a victim of charity for his people, we desire to be united with him; nay more, we desire that the cry of our hearts should be made one with his. Of Thy great mercy grant, O Lord, that not one of us may be far from his mind and his heart in the hour that he prays and offers unto Thee the Sacrifice of Thy blessed Son. At the moment when our venerable High Priest, holding in His hands the very Body of Jesus Christ, shall say to the people over the Chalice of benediction these words: "The peace of the Lord be with you always," grant, O Lord, that Thy sweet peace may come down upon our hearts and upon all the nations with new and manifest power. Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Identity Crisis: What Mary's Fiat Means for Women

Simone deBeauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
Part 1: Imperfect Imitation

Simone deBeauvoir begins her famous book, The Second Sex, with the following observation:

"For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it. It is still talked about, however, for the voluminous nonsense uttered during the last century seems to have done little to illuminate the problem. After all, is there a problem? And if so, what is it? Are there women, really?...One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should, what place they occupy in this world, what their place should be."

I share deBeauvoir's sympathies here. For a long time, I too have resisted writing a blog post on the topic of woman. It wasn't until a few weeks ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, that I decided to just do it. I want to write about woman not only because I am a woman, but because as a woman I feel impelled to examine the questions that deBeauvoir herself poses. Of course, I suspect that I will come to very different conclusions about the true identity of woman. For Catholics, this identity crisis shouldn't be a crisis at all because we have a model of womanhood. But knowing how to imitate a model isn't so easy.

How can a Catholic woman find her way in the midst of all the modern expectations and stereotypes? Because despite all of feminism's attempts to liberate woman from expectations, they are still there. We cannot escape the notion of identity. Even if we attempt to construct a new one, the idea of woman will always be fashioned in some image. One might think of this identity as some kind of Platonic curse, always gravitating woman towards some kind of "essence" or "perfection," the curse words of post-modernity. One could spend their whole life trying to escape the fact that woman is something. Or, one could just take the simple, humble, less complicated route and investigate who woman is. For Catholic women (and for any woman who seeks an example of womanhood), Mary is the model. The meaning and message of her life are summed up in her response to the angel Gabriel, which we celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation:

I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word."

What do these words mean for women today? For many, they mean nothing but submission and weakness, the antithesis of true feminine existence. For the Catholic woman, of course, they cannot mean that, since they were uttered by none other than the Theotokos herself. And yet, as the current state of affairs demonstrates, the true identity of woman remains in a state of confusion, just as deBeauvoir expresses. The result of this confusion is that, whether or not one believes in the Immaculate Conception, virgin birth, and other Marian teachings of the Catholic Church, Mary's words pose a dilemma. For the unbeliever, they call for a reconsideration of the concept of choice. For Catholics, they demand nothing short of a revolution---a revolt against the inadequate and incomplete modern image of what it means to be a woman. A revolution that aims at the core, at what is fundamental to the many questions that women face today. Perhaps even what deBeauvoir calls the "place" of woman in society is not really the heart of the matter. Perhaps what is most at stake is something far less obvious and simple,  a steady current beneath the turbulent swirls and eddies of modern discourse--- "I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy Word."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Leaving the Desert

Holy Week is one of our family's favorite times of the year, with all of its beautiful liturgies, traditions and prayers. In his Palm Sunday homily, Pope Benedict encourages the faithful to begin Holy Week by entering deeper into our relationship with Christ.

"Who is Jesus of Nazareth for us? What idea do we have of the Messiah, what idea do we have of God? It is a crucial question, one we cannot avoid, not least because during this very week we are called to follow our King who chooses the Cross as his throne. We are called to follow a Messiah who promises us, not a facile earthly happiness, but the happiness of heaven, divine beatitude. So we must ask ourselves: what are our true expectations? What are our deepest desires, with which we have come here today to celebrate Palm Sunday and to begin our celebration of Holy Week?"

Keeping these questions before us is always a good idea, but especially during Holy Week preparations. Seasonal activities can have the danger of closing in on themselves, of becoming simply a task that we check off the holiday to-do list. As traditions and customs become less and less common, and as the focus becomes more and more on convenience, it seems that this danger becomes even more present.

How can we keep Christ at the center of our Holy Week activities? For our family, playing a recording of Scripture being read aloud or beautiful chant is a simple way to maintain mindfulness of why we do what we do during Holy Week. Handel's Messiah or Bach's St. Matthew Passion are some of our other favorites. Taking time throughout the day to read a short Psalm or say a prayer is another way to focus Holy Week.

There are so many Holy Week traditions that it's hard to know where to start. Here are five of our family favorites:

1. Spring Cleaning

Holy Week in Seville, by Jose Jimenez y Arinda
Traditionally, the first three days of Holy Week were dedicated to rigorous spring cleaning. According to A Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

"According to an ancient tradition, the three days after Palm Sunday are devoted in many countries to a thorough cleaning of the house, the most vigorous of the whole year. Carpets, couches, armchairs, and mattresses are carried into the open and every speck of dust beaten out of them. Women scrub and wax floors and furniture, change curtains, wash windows; the home is buzzing with activity. No time is wasted on the usual kitchen work; the meals are very casual and light. On Wednesday night everything has to be back in place, glossy and shining, ready for the great feast. In Poland and other Slavic countries people also decorate their homes with green plants and artificial flowers made of colored paper carrying out ancient designs. This traditional spring cleaning is, of course, to make the home as neat as possible for the greatest holidays of the year, a custom taken over from the ancient Jewish practice of a ritual cleansing and sweeping of the whole house as prescribed in preparation for the Feast of Passover. "

And of course, spiritual spring cleaning is also in order during Holy Week. Most Catholic churches provide Confessions on several days during Holy Week.

2. The Seder Meal

Apparently the Catholic Seder Meal is a bit controversial. We've had one ever since the first year we were married and always look forward to it. Some people argue that it's historically inaccurate to have a Seder meal, or that it is disrespectful to our Jewish brothers and sisters. We find that it is both a helpful way to enter into the Holy Thursday liturgy (we always have the Seder right before the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper) and a beautiful avenue to consider our Lord's own Jewish traditions. We really like the ceremony from the Women for Faith and Family website.

3. Gardening

"The Agony in the Garden," Hans Leonhard Schaufelein
Good Friday is a traditional gardening day. According to Catholic Traditions in the Garden, by Ann Ball, Europeans used to plant parsley after returning home from church on Good Friday, since they believed that it had to descend into hell three times before it would sprout (hence the long germination period). Potatoes were a popular Good Friday plant in Ireland. According to Ball's book, potatoes were viewed with extreme scrutiny by many cultures because they aren't mentioned in the Bible. Apparently the Scottish were particularly prone to potato suspicion: "...the Scots refused to eat them as late as 1728. The Irish found a way around this by planting them on Good Friday and sprinkling the soil  liberally with holy water." We've also come across some other gardening ideas on the internet, like planting a Holy Week garden with symbolic plants like palm, figs, olives, Easter lilies and bleeding heart.

4. Baking

Easter wouldn't be complete without a bit of baking. Traditional Easter breads often featured eggs, which were off-limits during Lent. Practically every European country has its own version of Easter bread. This year we're going to try a Czechoslovakian bread called babovka. You can find the recipe (and many more) here.

"Baking Easter Bread" by William Kurelek

 5. Dying Easter Eggs

Traditionally, Easter eggs were dyed red to signify Easter joy, according to New Advent.  Someday we would love to make the beautiful Ukrainian pysanka.  For now we plan to dye our eggs with basic materials like beets, cabbage, turmeric, coffee grounds, onion skins and tea. You can find a great tutorial here.

To conclude, here's a nice prayer we found to say in the evenings during Holy Week. A Blessed Holy Week to everyone!

Family Evening Prayer for Holy Week

Mother or child: (From the words of Pope Pius XII On the Sacred Liturgy) Dearly beloved, in Holy Week, when the most bitter sufferings of Jesus Christ are put before us by the liturgy, the Church invites us to come to Calvary and follow in the blood-stained footsteps of the divine Redeemer, to carry the Cross willingly with him, to reproduce in our hearts his spirit of expiation and atonement, and to die together with him.

Father: We ought to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
Family: in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection.

Father: Let us pray. All-powerful, eternal God, you have chosen to give mankind a model of humility; our Savior took on our flesh, and subjected himself to the Cross. Grant us the grace to preserve faithfully the lessons he has given us in his Passion and to have a share in his resurrection. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Family: Amen. Favor this dwelling, Lord, with your presence. Far from it repulse all the wiles of Satan. Your holy angels—let them live here, to keep us in peace. And may your blessing remain always upon us. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Father: Let us bless the Lord

Family: Thanks be to God.
Father: May the almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless and keep us.  

Family: Amen.