“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord! Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV)
Christmas is now long behind us, or at least past for the liturgical among us who honored Candlemas, so we might not have contemplated these words of Mary for some time.
Now we are in a different season, the Awards Season, when arts of film and television are afforded their honors, and so, Mary’s words might strike a different note. I daresay that when many read Luke 1:38 today, they immediately think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or at least Hulu’s acclaimed screen adaptation of it. With thirty-six nominations and thirty-three wins, including the Golden Globe for Best Drama Television Series, “handmaid” now evokes the chilling story of Offred in fundamentalist Gilead. The men in charge of this nation are, of course, not truly Christian, but in the age in which we live, we cannot really blame our neighbors unfamiliar with the Gospel for drawing connections.
Might the Christmas story, the Christian story—particularly the beginning of it—might Mary’s declaration grant us the opportunity to show our story as something radically different?
When Gabriel comes to Mary, the messenger of the Lord presents her with an awesome announcement. Luke gives an insight into her complex reaction, readers learn her feelings and thoughts and words. She is disturbed, she contemplates, she asks questions, and once she has the whole story, including a supporting account of her older relative Elizabeth’s pregnancy, she accepts.
Behold Look at me! I am a handmaid of the Lord.
Or we could translate that with an even more affronting word: Mary calls herself a doule, the female version of “slave.” Jewish owners weren’t allowed such liberties but in the Greco-Roman world, female slaves were the possession of their masters, and that included ownership of their bodies. They could be and often were sex slaves. This is a highly uncomfortable connotation in a conversation about pregnancy.
In multiple ways, though—two I’ll focus on here—the Christian narrative says she is a handmaid like no other because her Lord is like no other.
First, Luke’s language assiduously avoids the divine rape narrative known in his Greco-Roman culture. He states, the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The power of the Most High will cast a shadow over her, and that is how she will conceive (Luke 1:35).
Luke’s language affirms the divine descent of the child. The shadow of the Most High will issue forth in the Son of the Most High. The work of the Holy Spirit will birth a child who is holy. The divine emanations rest upon Mary in such a way that a child is found in her womb. Son of the Most High becomes now—without metaphor—Son of God (1:35). This is no longer only a euphemism for Messianic identity, it is reality.
This paternity different than any other paternity Luke indicates both with its divine origin but also by the location of that divinity. The language used here is spatially “above” language. God is the Most High who comes upon or over (epi) Mary, but not in. Luke emphasizes God’s paternity, God impregnates Mary, but without intercourse.
Tina Beattie with appeals to the work of Luce Irigaray sees a schema-shattering reality in this kind of impregnating. About the annunciation Irigraray asserts that it portrays, “the advent of a divine one who does not burst in violently, like the god of Greek desire.” She also appeals to René Girard who describes the annunciation not as the breakdown of the violent dualisms between the genders, but as the breakdown of violence itself. Beattie states, “He [Girard] argues that the absence of sex in the conception of Christ has nothing to do with repression, but rather it ‘corresponds to the absence of the violent mimesis with which myth acquaints us in the form of rape by the gods. In fact, all the themes and terms associated with the virgin birth convey to us a perfect submission to the non-violent will of the God of the Gospels, who in this way prefigures Christ himself’.” The annunciation, in Beattie’s words, “does not signal the end of sex, but the end of the association between sex and violence by which men exert their power over women.” God is Father, but unlike any father, especially any Greco-Roman pater or god.
The second way the Christian story gives evidence of a radically different narrative is through Mary’s answer. Her response is an act of power, Gospel power.
It is a real response. Gabriel does not just give her the news and leave. The messenger tells her what will occur, but then waits to hear her response. As Luke tells the narrative, there is indicative—a statement of what will happen—but there is also embrace of the indicative. Sarah Jane Boss states, “The Catholic, Orthodox and ancient Eastern churches have invariably held that Mary gave her free assent to the conception of Christ. If she had not consented to Gabriel’s message, then the world’s redemption would not have come about in precisely the manner in which it did: the redeemer would not have been the Jesus of Nazareth who is in fact God incarnate. So Mary is not only a physical but also a moral agent in the world’s salvation.”
And it is really powerful. This is the point at which Mary demonstrates an unblinking tenacious resolve. It is clear now due to Gabriel’s explanation in v. 35 that nothing about this will be normal, and because it will not be within the bounds of appropriate scripts for women, it will cause her shame and danger. Being old enough to know that she is engaged, and that she cannot yet have a child, she is old enough to know the consequences that will come to those who transgress the boundaries of sexuality. Even so, she agrees. She consents to the words Gabriel prophesied about her. She takes upon herself the negative consequences. At the same time, her act is not solely self-sacrificial; for in so doing, she also takes for herself the favor of God Gabriel proclaimed, the ability to have a healthy child, even a great Son, and most powerfully, the honor of being the mother of the Messiah who will reign forever. As the eloquent writings of Sarah Coakley argue, “. . . the profound paradox of an inalienable surrender (submission) to God that — as I argue — must remain the ground of even feminist empowerment.”
The content of Mary’s response is unparalleled, but it is not without formal precedent. For this is how God has always worked with God’s people. Jon Levenson describes a similar dynamic in the covenant of Israel. Although his words here concern the nation, they seem just as applicable to Mary, “. . . that moment of choice keeps alive the element of human autonomy in the dialectic of divine suzerainty. This is the element that distinguishes covenantal theonomy from theocratic tyranny. . . Her obligation to serve does not compromise her majesty; indeed, it defines it. . . No statement of the autonomy and dignity of humanity can be adequate to this ancient Jewish theology if it fails to reckon with the difference made by the God who commands.”
In other words, this handmaid is radically different because her Lord is radically different.
This affirms a contention I’ve carried for several years now: Mary isn’t just for Christmas. As my forebears and many contemporary brothers and sisters in the faith have taught me, she is perennial and timeless. As I and many others do in evening prayer, we show our strength by speaking Mary’s words and naming ourselves as slaves of the Lord.
Her words give a model of obedience, servitude even, to the only One to whom it is worthy to be enslaved. This handmaid would be among the resistance side by side with sisters and brothers speaking against evil by submitting to the God who has promised, and in her Son guaranteed, the coming of justice, for men and women, free and slave.
Amy Peeler is Associate Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. She also serves as Associate Rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Geneva, IL. She earned her PhD in biblical studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her research interests have included Hebrews, Mark, Matthew, the Fatherhood of God, and Feminist Theology. She is a fellow in the fourth fellowship of the CPT.
 Irigaray, Marine Lover, 181.
 Ibid., 134.
 Ibid., 135.
 Sarah Jane Boss, the Title Theotokos in Mary the complete resource, 53.
 Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions, x.
 (Creation, 141, 148).