Frescoes in the Holy Land’s Church of the Visitation create a striking juxtaposition: they depict Mary flanked by two Israelite warrior heroines, Judith and Jael.* Both women saved their people by dealing a mortal blow to the enemy’s head. Judith infiltrated the camp of the invading Assyrians, winning her way to the heart of their commander Holofernes, then, left alone with him, beheaded him. Jael offered sanctuary to the Canaanite general Sisera, whose soldiers the Israelites had just routed; as he lay sleeping in her tent, she drove a tent peg through his head.
Advent is generally thought of as a gentler liturgical season than Lent; in hope and expectation, we prepare to welcome the Infant in a night made glorious by the star’s radiance and the angelic choirs.
True though this is, it is also true that at the heart of Advent stands a warrior, Mary. When Mary, newly pregnant with Jesus, journeys to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth greets Mary with the same phrase applied to Judith and Jael in the Old Testament: “Blessed are you among women” (Judith 13:18, Judg. 5:24, Luke 1:42).
Elizabeth acclaims Mary as a heroine who has dealt a mortal blow to the enemy’s head — but this enemy is not simply Israel’s latest geopolitical enemy but the spiritual enemy of all humanity. With the “yes” that she has just pronounced to God’s plan, and with the Incarnation of the Son of God in her womb, Mary has shown herself to be the unnamed “woman” of Genesis 3:15, who strikes at the head of Satan.
Mary, whose Immaculate Conception we celebrate in the midst of Advent, is rightfully depicted in art as crushing the serpent’s head with her foot. Untrammeled by sin, living completely from and for the Father, she has sealed Satan’s doom by the humility, obedience, and charity that are God’s gift. And, as Christians, we claim her as our Mother!
Our Mother is a victorious heroine. Perhaps we have particular need of such an ally during this Christmas time; worries and tensions can re-activate old patterns of sin or exacerbate habitual ones, and the season’s sacredness can tempt us to a self-righteous sense of shock at our own or others’ faults. Mary was never shocked by sin: she simply, matter-of-factly, fought it. Let us ask her to school us in the use of her weapons: prayer and virtue. And let us be confident that the fight is already won and that with her we will find joy in the struggle, as well as in the victory — the same joy of the Spirit that set David leaping before the Ark and John the Baptist leaping before the unborn Christ.
*I owe this insight to Dr. Scott Powell’s Sunday School podcast with Pillar co-founder JD Flynn.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.