Behold, I Am the Handmaid of the Lord

“I, your servant, have never eaten at the table of Haman, nor have I graced the banquet of the king or drunk the wine of libations. From the day I was brought here till now, your servant has had no joy except in you, Lord, God of Abraham. O God, whose power is over all, hear the voice of those in despair. Save us from the power of the wicked, and deliver me from my fear.”
Esther 4, (C) 28-30 (NAB)

“And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Luke 1, 38


The Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary being the new Eve – the spiritual “mother of all the living” – appears to have been universally accepted among the faithful by the second century as part of the Apostolic Tradition of the Church. This teaching certainly wasn’t just a theological opinion held by a few early religious thinkers, seeing that the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, in their bearing witness to the faith, referred to Mary as Eve’s anti-type in their apologetic works against the claims of non-believers, Jews and Gnostics respectively. The Patristic Fathers of the first millennium consistently taught and elaborated on what was handed down to them from the apostles as part of the deposit of faith concerning our Blessed Mother’s essential role in the divine order of redemption.

The idea of Mary being the new Eve, the free woman who God promised from the beginning would by her faith undo what Eve had unfaithfully wrought by heeding the words of the serpent, most likely arose from reflecting on Paul’s teaching of Jesus being the second Adam (1 Cor 15:20-23, 25). The early Church Fathers apparently placed the apostle’s words in the context of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the promise of redemption, and the final victory over Satan, which included his humiliating defeat by the faith and charity of an immaculate woman. They believed that the Incarnation could only have resulted from Mary’s free consent to be the mother of the Lord and Saviour.  With her moral participation hanging in the balance, the Devil’s dominion over souls on earth might now finally be destroyed with the coming of the divine Messiah through his chosen mother’s obedient act of faith (Gen 3:15).

“[Jesus] became man by the Virgin so that the course which was taken by disobedience in the beginning through the agency of the serpent might be also the very course by which it would be put down. Eve, a virgin and undefiled, conceived the word of the serpent and bore disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced to her the glad tidings that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, for which reason the Holy One being born of her is the Son of God. And she replied, ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.”
St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 100
(155 AD)

The infant Church mostly consisted of Hebrew converts to the Christian faith who were well versed in the Pentateuch, and so, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they must have perceived a connection between the forbidden fruit which Eve presented to Adam (Gen 1:6-8) and the fruit which Mary had brought to mankind from her blessed womb (Lk 1:42). The difference was that Eve’s offering resulted in mankind’s alienation from God and subjection to death, both physical and spiritual; whereas Mary’s offering reconciled the world to God and gave hope of eternal life with Him.

We know from sacred Scripture that Eve was meant to be Adam’s “helpmate” (Gen 2:18) but, unfortunately, she failed him miserably. What she proposed to her husband led to his fall from grace and consequently the fall of humanity (Gen 3:6, 8-13). Mary, on the other hand, collaborated with God as his helpmate in the redemption of mankind (Lk. 1:42). The Lord’s handmaid received the word of the angel Gabriel with “faith and joy”, unlike Eve who fell prey to the deception of the fallen angel. Mary had no joy except in God, while Eve sought joy in the vain allurements of this world, a weakness of hers which the devil exploited. The serpent saw how appealing the forbidden fruit was to Eve’s eye.

Thus, by her “faith working through love” (Gal 5:5-6), Mary did have an active, causative role to play in mankind’s redemption. Being in the state of grace and always willing to please God, she could mediate the coming of the Redeemer into the world. Only the fruit of her womb could obtain the grace of justification and forgiveness for mankind and regenerate human souls unto life with God in the Spirit by his just merits, but not without Mary’s free consent to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour which God willed with necessity.

Mary’s role in the divine order of redemption wasn’t merely a physical one; nor was it completely passive by any means. Our Blessed Lady wasn’t chosen by God simply to serve as a physiological means to an end with absolutely no regard to her human dignity and having been created in the divine likeness (Gen 1:27). Surely, God’s sovereign omnipotence couldn’t negate His goodness and righteousness. The eternal Divine Word could just as easily have become man and be as human as we are by being formed out of the clay of the earth as Adam had been (Gen 2:7), but instead He chose to be “made of a woman” (Gal 4:4).

The truth is that God had something more important in mind for Mary other than being a natural mother when He fashioned her soul and sanctified it upon her conception, preserving her free from all stain of sin (Lk 1:28). Our heavenly Father willed with necessity that Mary’s motherhood should be moral in nature; she was predestined to be intimately associated with the Son in His redemptive work. Her collaboration with God in His grace was necessary, since Eve had freely disobeyed God to fall from His grace. Eve’s transgression had to be blotted out in the most perfect way: by means of reciprocation. The incarnation wouldn’t have occurred by default without the Virgin Mary’s salutary free consent to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour.

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.’ Eve disobeyed God, yet Mary was persuaded to be obedient to God. In this way, the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus, as humanity fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin. Virginal disobedience has been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way, the sin of the first created man received amendment by the correction of the First-Begotten”
St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:19:11, 38
(180-189 AD)

The coming hope of the world’s salvation rested on our Blessed Lady’s obedient act of faith in charity and grace. This was only fitting, in keeping with God’s goodness and righteousness, since Eve contributed morally to the fall of Adam (mankind) by succumbing to the serpent’s temptation. It may have been because of her egoism that Eve sinned against God. Not unlike the fallen angel Lucifer who appeared to her in the form of a serpent, Eve refused to obey God because of an inordinate love of self which comes with pride and is concomitant with an inordinate desire for created things which she valued more than God the Creator. She did lose her faith in what Adam told her about God’s command of abstaining from the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, by receiving the words of the Serpent, she wished to be equally like God in her selfish pursuit of happiness by making herself out to be the measure of her own existence; to be like God before God, but apart from God in accordance with her own will (“radical self-deification”).

Mary, on the other hand, morally contributed to mankind’s reconciliation with God by humbly accepting the proposition of the angel Gabriel in humility and in perfect love of God. What she willed for herself was what God willed for her, since she had no joy and peace except in the God of Abraham. Mary aligned her will with God’s will because she esteemed His will over her own in steadfast love and unfaltering trust in Him: the essence of faith in Judaic thought. God was the measure of her life. She acknowledged Him as her Creator on whom she ultimately depended and in whom she placed all her confidence. There could be no true life for Mary apart from God. The vain pleasures of this world couldn’t appeal to her.

Considering Eve’s transgression, Mary’s act of faith in charity and grace temporally appeased the Divine justice and pleased God to become incarnate. God could now turn His gaze away from Eve’s infidelity and turn it towards Mary’s faithfulness and love, albeit the unworthiness of sinful humanity. Moreover, the Son of God could now in turn undo the sin of Adam by emptying himself and humbly taking the form of a slave in our humanity, even by accepting his debasing death on a cross, because of the absolute love He had for the Father and His perfect obedience to His will (Phil 2:5-8). Mary had to have the same “mind-set” as that of her divine Son, if he were to come into the world and reconcile mankind to God. She had to have liberty of will and a moral responsibility to God if He were to become incarnate.

“But we must consider another marvelous aspect of the comparison between Eve and Mary. Eve became for men the cause of death, because through her death entered the world. Mary, however, was the cause of life, because life has come to us through her. For this reason, the Son of God came into the world, and, ‘where sin abounded grace super-abounded’ (Rom. 5:20). Whence death had its origin, thence came forth life, so that life would succeed death. If death came from woman, then death was shut out by him who, by means of the woman, became our life.”
St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Against Heresies, 87
(ante A.D. 403)

Hence, God wouldn’t have come into the world any other way, but by the faith and charity of a woman who should reciprocally undo Eve’s indifference and disobedience which eventually alienated mankind from God. Mary’s acceptance of God cancelled out Eve’s rejection of Him.  Mary’s Fiat at the Annunciation invited God back into the world so that He could undo what Adam had wrought by Eve’s suggestion. Eve’s participation paved the way for mankind’s spiritual and physical death, while our Blessed Lady’s participation provided the hope of salvation to all who must emulate her faith and charity in God’s grace if they hope to be saved.

By having vindicated Eve, Mary became the maternal advocate of the entire human race. In this sense, she truly is our spiritual mother, whose womb has provided regeneration unto life with God because of her faith and love. The blessed fruit which she has provided to all mankind can now be partaken of from the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24) by her congruous merits in and through the condign merits of her divine Son, the living Font of all grace. The promise of eternal life has rested on the blessed fruit in the palms of Mary’s extended hands ever since she joyfully consented to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour.

Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!
Lamentations 2, 18

The Virgin Mary had rejoiced in the good news that was brought to her by the angel Gabriel, when she declared: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She responded in a spirit of gladness, despite whatever trials she might have to endure by being the mother of the expected Messiah. As our Blessed Lady joyfully contemplated on the divine favour that was granted to her by God in His infinite mercy, she knew that she would eventually have to sacrifice her maternal rights to fulfill whatever purpose lay in her Divine motherhood. Being the mother of Jesus (in Hebrew, Yeshua: “God is salvation”) certainly entailed much more than the natural state of being a mother. Mary was chosen to nurse and raise a son who was destined to be much more than a carpenter (Lk 1:31-33). He was in fact God who became incarnate to save mankind from sin and death: a king-priest like his royal ancestor David. Indeed, Mary’s maternity was a supernatural divine calling and a spiritual vocation that God preordained for the benefit of all human souls. God’s handmaid was chosen to render humanity a spiritual service because she had found favour with God (Lk 1:30).

Mary was aware that the patriarch’s, judges, and prophets were called to serve God life-long, so she understood that her saving office shouldn’t come to an end once she had completed raising Jesus upon his reaching manhood; nor would it preclude any hardships for her. Still, in the obscurity of faith, which demanded her full trust in God, our Blessed Lady could only imagine what might lay in store for her. She must have thought that her Son’s birth entailed a life-long mission, too, along with hers and that the two of them would somehow be associated together in a work of great personal sacrifice until God’s plan should be fulfilled.

The Lord’s faithful handmaid would finally come to see the fullness of this divine mystery of the Incarnation on Calvary beneath the Cross while enduring her terrible sorrow because of the world’s sins. The Annunciation marked the beginning of her journey in faith under the shadow of the Cross which loomed before her, a journey she was valiantly prepared to take like the Hebrew heroes and heroines who went before her because of her love of God and humanity. Conversant with Judaic tradition, Mary understood that the time of the new exodus had arrived with the coming of the long-awaited Messiah who, as foretold by the prophets, would redeem not only Israel, but all humanity of sin, and by doing so, liberate man from bondage and re-create the world.  Mary’s faith and trust in God gave her the moral courage she would need to endure the many trials that should come her way for the salvation of the whole world and entry into the new promised land of God’s eternal kingdom.

By pronouncing her Fiat, Mary had dedicated herself to the spiritual service of mankind all because of humanity’s fall from grace and its need to be restored to God’s favour. Working together with God in the salvation of souls required that Mary should suffer for the sins of the world together with her Divine Son (Col 1:24). In true faith, our Blessed Lady was willing to accept all the trials she might have to face as the mother of God’s anointed One. Her flight into Egypt with the infant Jesus was the first of several tremendous sorrows she would have to endure as the Lord’s handmaid (Matt 2:13-23). And so, she was prepared by the power of divine grace to renounce her maternal rights and make satisfaction to God for the sins of the world by offering His gift to her back to Him ultimately on Calvary in the faithful spirit of Abraham (Gen 22:9-10).

It was beneath the Cross where our sorrowful Lady understood all too well how the child she had joyfully conceived and borne was in His Divine Person the ultimate and final propitiation for sin; that he alone could accomplish once and for all what any of the paschal lambs of the Old Covenant could never do: achieve an eternal atonement for the people’s sins through only one, single sacrifice of himself (Heb 9:11-14, 23-26). Our Lord’s handmaid acted believing with all her heart that all the suffering she might have to endure because of her love of God and Son, who was God in the flesh, would be for the greater good (Gen 22:15-18). Thus, on behalf of Israel and the entire world, Elizabeth praised her kinswoman for her faith, when she declared: “Blessed are you who believed, that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Lk 1:45).

The Lord’s Handmaid begot us in Christ Jesus by having received the Gospel message in the depths of her heart (1 Cor 4:15). Mary became our mother once she accepted the word of the angel in good faith, despite all that it might entail for her, but remained obscure. And so, she could have asked herself as she stood at the foot of the Cross: “Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant,’ to the land which You swore to their fathers?” (Num. 11:12). Mary became the spiritual mother of all the living – the new Eve – and the mother of all nations because she believed and acted on the word of God as Abraham had, to become the father of many nations.

Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only beloved son Isaac foreshadowed Mary’s sacrificial offering of her only beloved Son Jesus when, in the shadow of the Cross, she presented her infant Son in the Temple as an act of consecration to his heavenly Father in commemoration of Abraham’s great act of faith (Lk 2:22-36). On this occasion, Simeon alluded to the greater soteriological importance of Mary’s maternal role in the economy of salvation, when he prophesied to her: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts shall be revealed” (Lk 2:35).

Although Mary couldn’t have envisioned the scene on Golgotha that would take place about thirty-three years later, the time would arrive when the Mother should stand at the foot of the Cross to witness the horrible suffering and death of her precious Son and there recall not only the prophetic words of Simeon, but also those piercing words of the prophet Isaiah (53:3-5). Her motherhood was essentially more entwined with her Son’s suffering and death than it was with his birthing and nurturing. The relationship that existed between Mary and Jesus, from the time of his nativity to the inauguration of his public ministry at Cana, where he performed his first miracle at the wedding feast upon his mother’s request, mattered little in comparison in the Divine plan for her.

Mary’s motherhood was meant to be redefined at the first instant she said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.” Of course, Mary may not have imagined this at the time she gave her consent to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour, but Mary was predestined to become the mother of all the living. Being the spouse of the Holy Spirit, by His overshadowing her (Lk 1:35), God’s faithful handmaid and chaste virgin bride was predestined, in the order of grace, to become a mother of a spiritual kind.  It was for this reason that God sent His Son to be “made of a woman” (Gal 4:4) and her Son called her “Woman.”

Mary was called to suffer as the mother of our Lord to “make up for what was lacking” in her Son’s suffering for the redemption of mankind. Unless she did suffer in her maternal agony because of her love of God who was offended by sin and her love of the Son who was nailed to the cross because of sin, her Divine motherhood couldn’t have been redefined at all. Our Blessed Lady’s spiritual motherhood received its  raison d’être in her association with Jesus in mankind’s redemption, which could be achieved only through reparatory  suffering and dying to self. Jesus ratified Mary’s universal motherhood of mankind from the Cross, by which it must be validated.

Now, why art thou drawn together with grief? Hast thou no king in thee, or is thy counsellor perished, because sorrow hath taken thee as a woman in labour?
Micah 4, 9

As Mary sorrowfully stood beneath the Cross because of the world’s sins, her heart and soul were pierced with immeasurable sorrow. What motherly agony she felt made temporal reparation for all the sinful pleasures man obstinately indulges in with no thought given to an offended God. Mary emptied herself and took the form of a slave together with her divine Son in his humanity to help restore the equity of justice between God and mankind. Suffice it to say, our Blessed Lady’s great personal sacrifice counter-acted Eve’s selfish act. Her interior suffering, therefore, made temporal satisfaction to God, for she willingly suffered by her love of God whom she wished to appease for the sins that offended Him and by her love for the Son who suffered because of sin.

Mary’s maternal sacrifice was for the sake of mankind, also, which was ravaged by sin. In harmony with the Divine will, she desired that humanity be liberated from slavery to sin and the oppression of death wrought by Adam and Eve’s transgression. Her temporal satisfaction to God was made together with her Son’s eternal satisfaction. Both the sorrowful Mother and the bruised Son aligned their human wills with the will of the Father so that He would be both temporally and eternally propitiated for the sins of the world.

For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands, “Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!”
Jeremiah 4, 31

I believe it is St. Paul who tells us: “For they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). The apostle’s words reflect what he implicitly tells us in Colossians 1:24, that what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions” refers to  the  debt of  temporal  punishment. He means to say that we can “complete” the eternal expiation for sin Christ has made for humanity by offering up our suffering in union with his suffering for the temporal remission of our debt of sin.

God requires this redemptive form of suffering because it restores sinners to the equality of justice in their relationship with Him through sanctification or justification, as to be worthy to enter heaven. God demands that such temporal satisfaction be made on our part in union with Christ’s eternal satisfaction, “for the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa 30:18), and “he judges the people with equity” (Ps 9:8). The Blessed Virgin Mary endured temporal punishment as a satisfaction for the past and future sins of the world in union with her divine Son’s eternal satisfaction. Having been preserved free from the stain of original sin, she helped restore the friendship and equality of justice between God and mankind, thereby completing what was lacking in her Son’s afflictions in his redemptive work.

There can be no greater sacrifice than that of a loving mother who offers the life of her beloved offspring to God, and no greater sorrow to appease the Divine wrath than the sorrow of a mother who sacrifices her beloved child because of the offenses against God. Being the Lord’s handmaid was a divine call for Mary to help reconcile the world to God in union with her divine Son by personal sacrifice, not in co-ordination with his merits, but in co-operation with them. Her divine motherhood was intended to be something that should extend to the whole world and embrace all God’s fallen created children. Having vindicated fallen Eve by persevering in grace and denying herself in faith and love, Mary rightfully became the mother of redeemed humanity: the mother of all who have been restored to new life with God in and through the merits of her beloved Son.

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and stretch out the skins of thy tabernacles, spare not: lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes. For thou shalt pass on to the right hand, and to the left: and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and shall inhabit the desolate cities.
Isaiah 54, 2-3

Only in union with the sorrow of the Mother in obedience to the will of God would the Son justify fallen man by the outpouring of his blood and merit the grace of forgiveness that leads to his spiritual regeneration. Our valiant Blessed Lady was prepared by the grace of God to make personal sacrifices for the redemption of Israel and the whole world before the Incarnation would occur pending her consent. True, Jesus offered to lay down his life freely to eternally atone for mankind’s sins, that he might rescue all from the evils of sin and death (Jn 10:18; Gal 1:4), but only on condition that his Mother should decide to deny her maternal rights and carry her cross after him (Lk 9: 23-24). Mary precisely did this when she pronounced her Fiat by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Hence, as the spiritual mother of the world, our Blessed Lady stood morally courageous in the culmination of her sorrow by having to face the terrible agony of gazing upon her beloved Son from beneath the Cross and losing him, all because of her great love for humanity which had been ravaged by sin, and insofar that she wished to align her will with God’s (antecedent) will that “everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:1-4). As the mother of all people, and in the figure of Mother Zion, Mary acted as any mother normally would by interceding for her children in solicitation of their needs. And because she acted in charity and grace in observance of the Divine will, God honoured His handmaid’s sacrifice and blessed it as he had Abraham’s offering of Isaac.

Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.
Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.”
Isaiah 60, 20-21

Mary became the mother of our Lord and Saviour by her free consent in collaboration with the Holy Spirit and cooperation with divine grace. It was the grace of the Holy Spirit which conferred true merit on her. By His prompting, Mary acted in the only way acceptable and pleasing to God. She could not conceive Jesus physically unless she had first conceived him in her heart. Nor could she be the worthy mother of the Son unless she were willing to unite herself to him in his redemptive work in perfect oneness of love for God and human souls and hatred for sin and its ravaging. ‘In burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, I have come to do your will, O God’ (Heb 10:6-9). Mary’s consent was as important as her Son’s should be in accord with the Father’s wisdom and righteousness. Her consent to bring the Messiah into the world could be honoured by God only because it conformed to His will, just as the Son’s consent to come into the world was honoured by his Father because it conformed to His will.

Mary’s faithful assent to the will of God had to follow through her entire life, just as the Son of man’s assent to the will of the Father had to in his life on earth. Jesus became the source of our salvation through his perfect obedience to the will of the Father. His heavenly Father did designate him to be our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek because he was perfected by learning obedience through suffering for the sake of His love and goodness (Heb 5:8-10). Mary had to be perfected in the same way as her Son was in his humanity for God to redefine her motherhood and designate her Mother of the Church. (Lk 11:27-28; Jn 19:26-27).

Mary conceived and bore the Divine Messiah because she was willing to do any good work that God may have prepared in advance for her to do (Eph 2:10). Only by her good works of mercy in charity and grace could Mary become the spiritual mother of us all. We, her children, must follow in her footsteps, if we hope to conceive Christ in the womb of our souls and be saved. Mary willed in a way that God had wanted her to freely will with the help of His grace in conformity to His will which conferred merit on her act of faith informed by charity in grace. Her consent to the will of God eradicated Eve’s consent to the will of the serpent. “[Mary’s] Yes to God undid the No of sinful Eve” (Text: Alma Redemptoris). By her Fiat, Mary crushed the serpent’s head with her heel, and by her virtuous act of faith, not only did she humiliate the devil after what he had done to Eve, but God’s saving light shone forth into the world. All this because God’s light shone forth from our Blessed Lady’s soul, which magnified His glory (Lk 1:46).

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined forth.
Psalm 50, 2

Published by: Catholic Pilgrim

I'm an EFL high school teacher in China, but from Canada, who likes to dab in theology and Biblical exegesis, and a practicing Roman Catholic strongly devoted to our Blessed Mother Mary. I hold a BA in Religious Studies & Philosophy from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. By the way, my profile photo was candidly taken by a fellow Catholic pilgrim at the Chapel of the Apparitions by the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.

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