The Handmaid of the Lord
by Louis Weil
The following homily was preached at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on the Feast of the Annunciation, April 8, 2002, by the Reverend Louis Weil, James F. Hodge Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
Let it be to me according to your word.”
— Luke 1: 38
About two years ago, a new statue of Our Lady and the Infant Jesus was installed in St. Matthew’s Church in London. It caused a minor furor in the religious press. When you look at the statue head-on, the Blessed Mother is presenting her Son to you. Neither figure has a sweet or pretty face — there is nothing sentimental about the Mother and Child. What you see is a very basic depiction of our humanity.
The Child is naked. But that is not unusual in much Christian art — as, for example, in the Della Robbia here at St. Mary’s. But when you look at Our Lady, holding the Child, you realize that she, too, is unclothed. This is what set off the critics, of course. They said it was inappropriate, even demeaning of the Blessed Virgin, that she should be depicted naked.
I asked the sculptor, Guy Reid, about the furor. After the first articles appeared, he had been asked for an interview; and he said that he was amazed by the negative reaction. He was, he said, “simply depicting Our Lady as the second Eve.” At that, the critics fell silent. The artist had tapped into one of the most basic theological images of the Mother of Our Lord: as the one in whom the disobedience of humanity was reversed; the one whose acceptance of the will of God enables the Church to sing at the Easter Vigil, “O blessed iniquity which won for us so great a redemption.” The sin of Adam is reversed in Mary’s “Be it unto me according to your word.”
The statue in London reminds us of our tendency to domesticate images — to tame them, to make them safe and unchallenging, to choose a narrow set of images from the great range of images which have emerged from the Church’s experience of the Holy.
We need many images, if we are to avoid the literalization of a few safe ones. With regard to the Blessed Virgin, the range is vast: from the great icons of the Theotokos, the God-bearer, which speak to us of Mary’s exalted role, all the way, for example, to the astounding opening scene of Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Matthew in which we see Mary as a bewildered teen-aged girl who is great with child, and whose face seems to ask, “What have I agreed to?” Here we see Mary in all the vulnerability of her humanity.
We need the whole range of such images so that we may avoid the trap of thinking that any one image captures the meaning of the mystery of God’s action in human history. The great danger of identifying the Holy with one image is that the one image can become an idol, an idol which limits our vision of God to itself, and inhibits our encounter with the glory of God which is beyond all of our images, and to which, at best, our images may lead us.
And so the statue of the Mother and Child at St. Matthew’s, London, is not the last word in our depictions of Mary and Jesus, but it is, I believe an important one within the great spectrum — and it is one which challenges us in a particular way. To a remarkable degree, the figures of Jesus and Mary are both strong and vulnerable at the same time. It is a rare combination: strong and vulnerable. The two figures embody Our Lady’s response to the Annunciation of Gabriel: “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Here is strength: I know who I am — I am a child of God. But even in the strength of that identity, there is also vulnerability: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Here is a statement of absolute dependence — a vulnerability which we do not usually associate with strength. The nakedness of the two figures makes this vulnerability evident, while at the same time the figures are strong.
In this way, the statue speaks to us of our own relation to God. It summons us to be strong and secure in our identity as the children of God. At the same time it reminds us that we are ultimately naked. We are vulnerable to all the “changes and chances of this mortal life.” In this vulnerability, we are identified with Mary as the bewildered teen-aged girl, and must respond with her to a life for which we are given no blueprint: “Be it unto me according to your word.”
Or as we say in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done.”
In this season of Easter, a primary image of Our Lady is as “Queen of Heaven.” This is an early image in the tradition. Already in the fifth century we have a mosaic in Rome of Our Lord placing a crown upon his mother’s head. It is a fitting image of Mary as the God-bearer. But we need to remember that it is an image which comes to us from our historical experience of power and authority. I am reminded of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate which we heard proclaimed in Holy Week. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king then?” And Jesus responds, “King is your word.”
And this is true: “King,” “Queen” — these are our words. They are our stutters and stammers as we human beings attempt to find words and images to express our awe and wonder when we encounter the Mystery of God present and active in our lives. We need all the images: King of Kings — Suffering servant — Child in a manger — Queen of Heaven — Second Eve — Handmaid of the Lord.
But beyond the images is the glory and otherness of God, the Holy One who came to share our humanity when a Jewish peasant girl said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
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