Catholic Reflection/Homily
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception - December 8, 2007

So many people want to be recollected. But so few understand what it means. Still fewer do not know what it entails. The world keeps on telling us: Produce. Do something. Don’t just sit there; be productive. People who claim they want to be recollected often don’t really want to be recollected. What they really want is collect things, collect souvenirs. Just like people who spend their recollection day gathering up stuff to bring home from the gift shop, or taking pictures, especially the digital kind that you can easily crop, drop, or otherwise reject, without guilt, or dump into one’s digital dust bin of overflowing memories.

For one reason or another, to be recollected is almost always seen as being hopelessly passive, wasting time gracefully, (and money, for one usually pays for an excursion to a monastery or retreat house), and waiting passively for the next talk or powerpoint presentation, or the next musical piece designed as background to whatever it is we do, or don’t do. Many times the background music becomes the centerpiece of conversation. It becomes just one more distraction. All too often, we ask one another where we got it, who’s the artist, or whether we have more of the kind, etc.

Recollections and retreats end up being the most mentally and physically active times of the year. We run hither and thither. We cannot sit still, for we are preoccupied with not being occupied, with being just there and doing nothing productive. This may well explain why the ubiquitous cell phone (or is it the blackberry?) or PDA is always on “just in case.”

Our topic for today, no matter our pious sentiments, is not a popular one. Who wants to be a “handmaiden?” Who would want to be playing second fiddle? Who would want to be at the beck and call of someone else, ever ready and willing to do someone else’s bidding? Who would want to be a doormat of sorts and be everyone’s personal administrative assistant?

Anyone of you who has seen or read the novel/film “The Devil Wears Prada” would know how hard and how counter cultural it is to be a handmaiden. Andrea, the main character of the story, was the perpetual handmaiden of the narcissistic character played by Merryl Streep, Miranda Priestly. For a whole year, she was tripping and falling all over herself just to please the intractable and unreasonable Miranda Priestly.

I am sure no one in our times and days would ever want to be such a handmaiden.

But I would like to suggest that it is so because we really do not understand what a handmaiden in the Biblical tradition is really all about. We think it is all about being passive, being with eyes perpetually downcast, and being a pushover. We think being a handmaiden is being literally a doormat.

No one wants to enter this unknown “virgin territory.” We’d rather be in control, in charge of things. We’d rather be on the wheels, rather than being on the passenger seat, or in the back seat. We want to know where we are going, even if all we really do is obey that flat voice of the GPS that tells us to turn right or left, or make a legal U turn where possible.

And yet, today, you are here to extol Mary as Handmaid of the Lord. First and foremost, let us get it straight. The original word in Greek is doule, meaning slave or servant. It might interest you to note that it was Mary herself who chose the word doule kuriou (handmaid of the Lord), or in Latin ancilla Domini. The meaning, somewhat clouded by the English handmaid, in OT theology, is really a high compliment. It implies certainty on the transcendence of God and submission to his design. God’s might and sovereignty, which evoke and answer “service” is what this being doule is all about, the subject of the Magnificat, Mary’s great prayer. This prayer insinuates that Mary is a type of Israel, God’s servant, pais. It pays honor to Abraham, God’s servant. The Magnificat points to the “servant” characteristic quality, which may be linked to Christ’s description of himself as lowly of heart. The lowly were God’s favorites, the Poor of Yahweh, the anawim of Yahweh.

All this is to say that the word “handmaid” applied to Mary has nothing of the saccharine, touch-feely characteristic trait in it. There is nothing passive and weak in it. Instead, it all has to do with action, not mere passivity.

ECCE ANCILLA DOMINI. Behold the handmaid of the Lord. We are entering virgin territory here, through and through. No, not the uncharted kind of territory, but the one chosen, decided on, freely accepted by Mary, a courageous woman of faith. To be virgin, in this sense, is to be what recollected ought to mean. It means, in the words of Loretta Ross-Gotta, “to be one, whole in oneself, not perforated by the concerns of the conventional norms and authority, or the powers and principalities. To be a virgin, then, is to be in a sense recollected.” And here, we speak of recollection of the right kind.

We can talk of so many problems that plague humanity in our times, but I think that one of them is this lack of recollection, this lack of free choices and decisions. We are led, like meek lambs by mass media. The “Black Friday” (shopping spree the day after Thanksgiving) phenomenon, designed by social psychologists, and social engineers to be come-ons for people to go out and buy, and to fan the flames of consumption and consumerism, takes most of us for a ride, a roller coaster ride of excitement and disappointment. We are not free in a sense. We are co-opted. And when we buy, we always are led to believe we have made wise purchases, and wise investments, for at the very least, there is nothing quite like owning something that only about 2,000 other people own exclusively for a few months.

Andrea of “The Devil Wears Prada,” is an image of the harried and always hurried ambitious young woman or man, who need, who are coerced to do almost anything to go up the corporate or success ladder. And one is forced, literally, to do anything to get that coveted post, or that coveted salary range. One does not become a doule, or a slave in that sense. No … one becomes enslaved, which is a different thing altogether.

But Mary was ancilla, by choice, by decision, by profession. Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Mary, as I said in my reflection for the Immaculate Conception feast, is both servant and sovereign. She was no pushover, no Andrea to be patronized and looked down on by a mighty and supercilious Miranda Priestly. She was a self-professed doule, like Abraham was God’s servant, like Jesus himself was, the great suffering servant of Yahweh.

But there is more to this doule, this handmaid of the Lord. Her openness, readiness, and virginity led her, ironically, to conceive. It might interest you to note that the word conceive is a very active verb. Again, it has nothing to do with passivity. Its root word has to do with “capturing, seizing, taking hold of.” But the stem “con” connotes cooperation, participation, activity, and conscious decision. Angelus Domini annunciavit Mariae. Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto. The Holy Spirit took hold of her, but we can also say that Mary cooperated with, offered herself as doule to the Holy Spirit. We could say also that she took hold of God active in her and through her, and the miracle of the Incarnation took place. Mary was no pushover. Mary was doule, servant and sovereign in her virginal motherhood.

No one of us wants to be doulos or doule, as I said. All of us want to be CEOs and Masters, and Managers, and Supervisors. But the Christmas story, not according to Hollywood, but according to Gospel good news, did not unfold through the manipulative machinations of the rich, the powerful, and the mighty. All the Christmas story needed to allow the plot of God to come true was a willing womb, a ready heart, and a virginal vessel that was willing to allow itself to be seized by God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s plan for all of humanity.

All that God needed was a handmaiden who was ready and willing to profess, FIAT MIHI SECUNDUM VERBUM TUUM. The rest is history … ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST, ET HABITAVIT IN NOBIS.