I think I must have noticed this before, but never thought about it. In some translations Luke 1:48 has Our Lady calling herself “handmaid” or “maidservant”, others, however, use the word “servant” because they don’t like the overtones of the gender-related noun. As someone who worked as a chambermaid in university holidays, I get where they are coming from, but oddly, those who in other contexts are most hostile to the use of gender-neutral language, have nothing to say (that I have been able to find) on the matter. As one who has no real beef with such language, I want to comment on it, because, well, I guess I find it offensive – the losing of the female element.
I know that it means when we say the Magnificat at Matins or Evensong, we can all join in, but as a woman I want to make a plea for keeping the older translation because the newer one, well-meaning though it is, actually erases the woman’s voice. I bet it was a man who decided that one!
What do I mean?
The Magnificat comes in the only passage of the Bible where we get no “male gaze”; no men were involved in the dialogue, and the unborn men are only witnesses. I don’t want (here and now) to stray into the delicate and difficult issue of gender in Scripture, but one thing is so obvious that we can miss it. The Bible is written by men and as such largely encapsulates things in terms of the ways men view the world. Nothing wrong in that, men and women often view the world in the same ways, you might say, and I might well nod and agree. But I would add that that’s not the same thing as capturing a purely “female gaze.” Some things are seen differently by the sexes – and nowhere is this more true than pregnancy and child-birth.
I have not had the good fortune to realise my childhood dream of being a mother, and I lost my own at a very early age and have few unmediated memories of her (I find it hard at times to know whether what I think I “remember” was real or simply half-recalling something my father told me), but I have friends and relatives who have been through the experience recently, and as a real and honorary “aunt” I have had the privilege of being part of conversations with them – and it is those female-only spaces which the Visitation recalls to me.
In this context “maidservant” is in no way, to my mind, demeaning. In calling herself this, Mary is expressing one of the virtues that show she is full of Grace and which has made her beloved by all subsequent generations – her humility. In the face of the awesome fact that you are going to be bringing another life into this world, I have noted friends often showing the same humility; it is literally, to be awestruck. How much more was Our Blessed Lady struck with awe, and what better way of expressing her humility than to call herself the handmaid of the Lord? Paul uses the masculine equivalent of the word in Romans 1:1 – δοῦλος there as opposed to δούλης.
Any of us, all of us, are servants of the Living God, but only a woman can be a handmaid in the way Our Lady was, and I want to reclaim that word for women – it is, if you like “servant plus” – and there’s a part of me doesn’t want to share that with men. Is that wrong of me?
I love the intimacy of the female space to which Luke gives us access. I know there are various theories as to the origin of the Magnificat, but there is a large part of me which knows it comes from Luke recording accurately what Our Lady told him. It’s a long time since I read literature at University, but I can spot a female “voice” when I hear it.
The image of the baby “leaping” in the womb moves our hearts, and is just what a woman would note – and the sheer joy, a word repeated several times – overwhelms us. As I say my Rosary I imagine it and am filled with joy myself. There is a very female acceptance of the will of God. Where Zacharias cannot believe that Elizabeth can get pregnant, and where even the wonderful and righteous Joseph (surely one of the most underrated men in history?) is minded to put his pregnant fiancée to one side quietly, Elizabeth knows who is in Mary’s womb, and Mary accepts the will of God with a willingness which can blind us to what she was accepting.
Mary was, after all, a young woman betrothed to Joseph. If we accept, as I and many do, that those called the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were the progeny of Joseph by a previous marriage, then it is likely that he was much, much older than his betrothed. Twelve and a half was the minimum age at which a girl could be betrothed, and it was not uncommon for a marriage to follow as much as a year later, so she could have been as young as twelve or thirteen at the time of the Annunciation. She would have been aware that becoming pregnant might bring disaster on her. We know that the early enemies of Christianity spread the slander that she had become pregnant by a Roman soldier, and we know from Scripture that Joseph thought it necessary to put her aside before the Angel intervened. But the young Mary, she expressed no doubt, no hesitation, she cooperated with the will of God in a situation where doing so could have exposed her to extreme harm. It is easy to forget how wonderful her trust in God was.
We see something else too in her song of joy. We see traces of what the Kingdom of God will be like. Her lowliness will exalt her, and she who was last will be first. Those who are proud and wealthy, they who are first in their own estimation and that of the world will be humbled and will be last. We see here, for the first, but not the last time, how dangerous for the soul wealth and the pride it can engender can be.
The Visitation is a precious moment of female intimacy where we glimpse something so often missing from a book compiled by men. Please don’t see this as a criticism of men, I wouldn’t expect them to be familiar with female spaces any more than I am with male ones. But I do reclaim that “handmaiden” translation. If, as many believe, there is something special in men because of Jesus which means only they can serve the Lord as priests and bishops, then there is, equally, something special in women, as only they can serve the Lord through pregnancy.