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.

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