The Handmaid’s Tale: Revisiting Mary In Advent

My soul doth magnify the Lord, *
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded *
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth *
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, *
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him *
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, *
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.

Book of Common Prayer, Rite I

One thing that surprised me when I started attending an Episcopal church was the fact that I don’t really miss Mary all that much.  I had been worshiping as a Catholic for more than 10 years; I thought that I would miss her.  But for the most part, I don’t.  In a way, it makes sense.  I had completely lost Jesus after all those years in the Catholic church.  I wanted him back, and the only way of finding him again was to leave the Catholic church.  In my mind, losing Mary was a small price to pay get Jesus back.

Another reason, I suppose, is it is difficult to miss the stick someone uses to beat you.  Mary is established as an impossible standard of women and then used to shame and silence women for deviating from that standard.  She is strikingly different from Jesus, whom the Gospels portray as incredibly human.  Mary, as portrayed in Catholicism, is a gross caricature of a perfect woman.  While the writers of the Gospels allow Jesus to experience “negative” human emotions (fear, rage, sorrow, frustration), any writer who attributes these feelings to Mary would immediately be decried as a heretic. (Boy are they going to hate this post. 🙂 )  The implication, of course, is that women should not have these negative emotions.  Mary is established as the ideal woman, and then women are shamed for failing to meet this standard.  Any other narrative of women is silenced.

Given this, I think it makes a lot of sense that I would not miss Mary all that much.

And yet, and yet…

A couple of years ago I read a piece about the Annunciation and the Visitation on Feminist Mormon Housewives.  It was called Mary vs. Authoritarianism, and it is simply one of the most moving reinterpretations of the Biblical text I have ever read.  The author, a Mormon feminist, attempts to interpret the story of Mary as a woman, particularly as a woman who has been pregnant.  When I read this post, I feel a renewed connection to Mary.  Why is that? Well, let’s break down some key quotes from the reflection.

Pause for a moment and notice.
The angel did not ask for Mary’s consent.

My male religious authorities always taught me that Mary said “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” as a demonstration of humility and her eagerness to fulfill the angel’s command.

Maybe “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” was not an acquiescence. Maybe it was just a savvy acknowledgement of her reality.

She knew the score right away, and realized immediately that refusal at that point was pointless. Maybe she’d already learned, young as she was, that you don’t win freedom and safety by reasoning with authoritarianism. So she says to the angel, “Sure, boss.” And then gets on to the work that women have always done: figuring out the most sure path to survival and getting the job done.

This is genius.

Many people found this interpretation troubling, because it comes close to implying that God raped Mary.  But I think that we should consider rape when we read this text, and apparently, I am not the only one.  The Gospel of Luke was written for a Gentile audience.  Most likely, they were familiar with the Greek/Roman pantheon, and one of the most prevalent features within the mythology was the idea of Zeus/Jupiter raping a host of mortal women, who would give birth to demigods.  Zeus, for example, takes the form of a swan, rapes Leda, and Leda gives birth to Helen of Troy.

Leda_-_after_Michelangelo_Buonarroti

The writer, or writers, of Luke is also believed to be a Gentile, so he must have also had these stories in his mind, just as the writers of Genesis borrowed from the Babylonian accounts of creation and a catastrophic flood.

There is another value of thinking about rape in this account.  In the second century, a Greek philosopher Celsus wrote that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier.  This doesn’t tell me anything about Jesus’ ancestry, but it does imply that Roman soldiers raped.  No doubt the Roman soldiers left a trail of rape ( and children) across the Mediterranean.

It is very reasonable to think that Mary knew women, perhaps even in her own family, who were raped.  Who knows?  Perhaps she herself was attacked at some point in her life.  (Would you think worse of Mary if she was?)  Many men often question why a woman did not fight back against a rapist.  This question assumes that women are not at a physical disadvantage against men.  Some women do fight back, but when usually happens when a woman fights back against a rapist, the rapist typically does not retreat.  Instead, he becomes more violent.  Many men think about fighting back against a rapist as a question of “Do I want to be raped or not be raped?”  But a better question would be, “Do I want to get raped or do I want to get raped and have a broken arm and a cracked skull?”

Perhaps this was playing in the back of Mary’s mind when she met the angel.  We wrongly think of angels as cozy, feminine creatures, but the Western artistic tradition misleads in this instance.  The angels in the Bible are terrifying.  They must constantly assure the poor humans who meet them, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary is confronted with Gabriel, a terrifying creature, who struck Zechariah dumb for merely asking questions.  What would he have done to Mary if she had the temerity to refuse?

Mary, despite her terror, was wise enough to know that she did not want to find out the answer to that question.

This portrayal of the Annunciation brings back the humanity to Mary.  She is no longer a gross caricature of a perfect woman.  She is a terrified young girl.  Jewish law demanded that girls who had sex before marriage be stoned to death, though in fairness, the vast majority of societies have been brutal to unwed mothers.  And yet, she must have also feared that the angel would kill her if she refused, or that refusing the angel would have made no difference: she would become pregnant whether she willed it or no.  Poor Mary.  She was trapped between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

Handmaid's Tale

[The Magnificat] is a song about overthrowing authority, sung by a girl who just had a pregnancy imposed upon her body by an omnipotent, invulnerable being.

Maybe she’s expressing her determination for her own Son. That this high-priority baby she was building, cell by painstaking cell, could be a liberatory figure, if she, his mother, could create the right vision and path for him.

Mary did not have a choice in pregnancy and motherhood. She didn’t choose this path. But once it was placed upon her, she entered into a conspiracy with her female cousin, and asserted her own power to turn it into a path of liberation.

Without her foresight, her desire, her subversion, her VISION, would Jesus have been the table-turning leader of liberation that we regard him as today?

How did Jesus learn about how to operate outside society’s acceptance with confidence and surety if not from his mother?

Once again, genius.

One of the ways that Mary is used as a weapon against women is to make her obsequious.  She is completely passive and submissive to God and others around her.  While her Son is allowed to show exasperation at his disciples’ stupidity or to hurl invective at the Pharisees, Mary is never allowed to show any negative (or worse, unfeminine) emotions.  Mary is not only portrayed as sinless, but as feminine to the point of parody.  She is quiet, obedient, and always sweet tempered.

But this is not the Mary we meet in the Magnificat.  Mary sings of overturning the social order.  She wants monarchs to be overthrown and the rich to be stripped of their possessions.  (What did Karl Marx think of the Magnificat?!)  I think of Mary, singing that song, feeling the fear and powerlessness of her own situation, and hoping for a new world.   She does not passively accept her situation and the world in which she lives.  She wants to destroy it.

I love the image of Mary teaching Jesus a revolutionary message of good news for the poor, and liberty to the captives.  Many scholars point out (with good reason) that Jesus may very well have been a disciple of John the Baptist.  But this essay imagines that Mary also played a defining moment in shaping her Son’s teaching.  Mary knew poverty; the Gospel of Luke is clear on that fact.  She also knew the captivity of pregnancy, especially a surprise, unwanted pregnancy.  She must have taught these experiences to Jesus, and inspired his humanity to usher in the new world for which she longed, a world where she would no longer be used.  It is a stunning thought: Jesus may have benefited from Mary’s brain, as opposed to merely her womb or her breasts.

It is not surprising that men throughout the history of Christianity have attempted to sanitize and tame Mary, to recruit her into their attempt to preserve the social order, with women happily subservient and docile.  And yet, within her Magnificat we see a refutation of that image.  Mary emerges in all her courageous, defiant glory.

Hail Mary indeed.

 

 

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