In the Lectionary

December 24, Advent 4B (Luke 1:26–38)

The traditional annunciation story bothers me even more than the word handmaid.

Sometime last year, I sat at a table outside a McDonald’s on the main square of Kraków, Poland. Suddenly the clock struck noon and a cacophony of church bells erupted. Birds scattered. Locals rushed from their daily lives into one of the several clanging churches on the square to pray the Angelus, a short prayer remembering the annunciation: “The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit. . . . Behold, the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to your word. . . . The word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord” clangs uncomfortably in my contemporary ears. After having spent five seasons with The Handmaid’s Tale, I am disturbed by this depiction of Mary. In Margaret Atwood’s theocratic dystopia, handmaids are women held hostage for their capacity to bear children. The all-male government controls their every move, stripping them of their former lives, names, and agency. For me, the word handmaid brings up notions of women controlled by men exerting power in God’s name. The Me Too movement has clarified and concretized our collective awareness that the nuances of agency and consent must govern questions about our reproductive lives. Otherwise, we stray closer to Atwood’s dystopia.

In Nazareth today, two separate holy sites commemorate the annunciation. Often when there are two sites associated with the same story in the Holy Land, they are competing sites: two different communities claim their stretch of land as the place where a given story really happened.