A homily given by Fr. Emmanuel Alfonso, SJ at the Jesuit Residence on 20 December 2017
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
After a few encounters with John the Baptist these past few days, including yesterday’s Gospel reading on his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, finally we turn our attention on the other major Advent figure presented to us by Holy Mother Church to help us prepare for Christmas: Mary, no less. Truly, as the first disciple of our Lord, the one who followed our Lord faithfully from the time of his conception and beyond the Pieta on Good Friday to the time of her adoption of the early church as their mother, Mary can teach us on how to prepare for the coming of her Son, our Lord this Christmas.
Just one point for our reflection this evening. It is said of the image of our lady of Guadalupe on the tilma or cloak of Saint Juan Diego, that this is the self portrait of Mary. As it happened, when the tilma was presented to the archbishop of Mexico, there appeared on the cloak, the image of Mary looking like an Aztec princess. So that was the selfie of Mary herself, her self-portrait. It is also said that in her apparition at Lourdes, that Mary introduced herself to St Bernadette as the Immaculate Conception, the one conceived without the stain of sin.
But if we go by the Scripture, Mary, in the Gospel today, has a simple or modest description, understanding, or appreciation of herself. She says: I am the Handmaid of the Lord!” What does it mean to be the handmaid of the Lord? According to Jewish custom at that time, or the Jewish political economy, a handmaid is not just somebody’s servant but somebody’s personal or close assistant or aide. She does all of his master’s bidding. Indeed, total, complete obedience is required and demanded. Even to the point of death or giving up her life for her master. Another extraordinary detail, in fact at that time, the handmaid or maidservant is typically given away to the master to become his mistress, as in the case of Hagar who was given away by the barren Sarah to her lovesick husband Abraham. That is the extent to which the handmaid performs her lowly duty for her master. And that is how Mary looked at herself. That is how Mary understood her role vis-à-vis our God. Not at Queen of heaven as the Church tells us, or as the other lofty titles we have given her but simply as the handmaid, the servant of God. What’s in a name or a title anyway, we may ask. Everything. It contains our understanding of ourselves and our role or relationship vis-à-vis God.
Perhaps we may need to recover or rediscover that kind of self-understanding or self-definition. If we observe, we also look at ourselves as servants of God, but the titles we give to ourselves give us away. We are for example, God’s disciple, God’s apostle, the instrument of God, or the child of God or God’s stewards or the co-creators of God. Like Mary, can we really bring ourselves down from the pedestals we have erected and look at ourselves simply as God’s servants? Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, may you show us the way to true and humble service.
Fr. Emmanuel “Nono” Alfonso, SJ, is the Executive Director of Jesuit Communications Foundation, Inc.