Then the Lord God said to the serpent ... "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." - Genesis 3:15
You have probably seen statues of Mary portrayed as a beautiful maiden in a long dress with small, bare feet peeking out of her flowing gown. If you look closely at her feet, you will often see a snake writhing beneath her feet, its head in the process of being crushed by her dainty heel. This is a common depiction of Mary, also known as the "New Eve." She is known by this title because, in contrast to Eve, Mary allowed God to work through her, humbly submitting herself to His will. It was through her docility to God's plan that Jesus came to defeat evil and crush the serpent, Satan.
As I have shared before, I have always had a hard time relating to Mary, or at least the Mary depicted in popular culture. Mary's docility, submissiveness and meekness are her qualities most often emphasized. These are beautiful characteristics, ones that I strive to imitate, but they are not qualities with which I immediately empathize or understand. I rarely hear about the Mary whose little bare feet ruthlessly crushed Satan.
One of the teachings Tim Gray gave to us in the Holy Land was on Mary. We were at Ein Karem, the place where Mary traveled to visit Elizabeth, commonly called the place of the Visitation. There was a light breeze that day as our group was led into the garden behind the church commemorating the Visitation and I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit particularly during this talk. There were many fascinating aspects of the teaching Tim gave us, but the part that most caught my imagination and attention was when he described the Scriptural importance of the phrase "blessed among women," used by Elizabeth when she first greets Mary.
The phrase "blessed among women" is used only two other times in Scripture, in reference to two women of the Old Testament, Judith and Jael. In Judges, the prophetess Deborah honors Jael as "blessed among women" in a victory song rejoicing over the defeat of the Canaanites. Jael is honored because she has managed to do what the armies of Israel could not; she kills Sisera, the leader of the Canaanites. Jael's motivation for killing Sisera is not clear, but it seems that because she is a descendent of the Israelites, she wants to help defeat their mortal enemy. She kills Sisera by luring him into her tent, feigning a desire to show him hospitality and instead she drives a tent peg into his head while he is sleeping. Yes, a tent peg. These women don't mess around.
Judith is the other woman in Scripture who is referred to as "blessed among women" and she is honored for similar reasons because she is the woman responsible for killing Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar's army. Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless king who planned to obliterate the Israelite settlements, including Jerusalem and the newly built Temple because they had not sent him a levy of soldiers for his most recent war. The king chooses his feared general Holofernes for the task. On route to Jerusalem is the little mountain town of Bethulia. Holofernes lays seige to the town and soon the people become desperate as their water supply runs dry. In this moment of desperation a woman named Judith steps into the story.
Judith, a widow of renowned beauty and holiness, gives the leaders of the town a speech filled with the wisdom of one close to God. Uzziah, one of the chief leaders, listens to her and urges her to continue to pray for their success. Judith responds by pretty much saying she is going to do more than sit at home and pray. She warns them that she will be leaving with her maid that night for the enemy camps. Using her great beauty, wisdom and constant prayers, Judith charms her way through the enemy camps and into a tent near the feared general Holofernes. On her fourth day in the camps, she is invited to dine with the general. Her maid serves wine and Holofernes drinks himself into a stupor. Seizing upon her chance, Judith grabs the general' sword, and with two swift cuts, she chops off his head.
At first I was a bit shocked that Mary would be associated with two women who used their womanly guile to lure men to their death. But then I thought about it in the context of salvation history. God, showing favor to the Jews, cultivated a chosen people who would produce the Savior of the world. In this salvation history, there are glorious kings and great leaders who protect and ensure the survival of the Israelites. But it is predominantly through people viewed as small and weak that God shows His great power and mercy to His people and protects them from being defeated and extinguished from history.
The story of David and Goliath is one such example of the weak and small conquering the great. But I am particularly captivated by the many women who are responsible for single handedly maintaining the continued survival of the Jewish people. This is a beautiful way that God communicates the inherent strength and value of women, even amidst ancient cultural values that did not regard women as equals to men. It is also how God communicates Himself, by showing that it is through what is thought of as weak and lowly, that God shows His greatness and power. And through Mary this pattern in salvation history reaches its pinnacle. Through this small Jewish woman, God brings the salvation of the entire world and the defeat of all evil. Mary is not a prop in God's salvation play, or someone who participated without freedom or action on her part. Rather, Mary is a free, integral player in the story of salvation, just as Jael and Judith's free actions were essential to the survival of the Jewish people. Like Judith and Jael, Mary's yes to God crushes the head of the enemy, not only the enemy of the chosen people but the enemy of all peoples of the world, Gentile and Jew.
After hearing this teaching on Mary in the Holy Land, our group walked out of the gardens in a stunned silence, mulling over its implications. I turned and met the sparkling eyes of a young deacon on our trip who said playfully, "I call that the blessed among badass women talk." I laughed heartily but afterward I began to think more seriously about what this teaching taught me about God.
Two thousand years ago, God, the king and creator of the universe, chose to manifest Himself in our world as a poor child, in a manger. And even in today's world, He chooses to manifest Himself through the small, humble and the weak. I don't think God is just saying, "Be weak and small and I will work through you." He is saying that, but I also think that He is communicating to us how we can grow strong. As the Lord said to St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."(2 Corinth 12:9) It is through embracing our weakness and admitting our vulnerabilities, that we become strong. By embracing our smallness before God, we grow spiritual armor on the inside. And perhaps it is through the very things that we consider our greatest flaws that God will work His greatest acts in us. Through this process, the hope is that eventually, like Mary and Paul, we will become spiritual badasses for Jesus.
Dearest mother Mary, help us to see you and understand you as you are. You long to put your mantle around us and lead us to your Son. Help us to grow closer to Him, through you, every day. And help us to embrace all that makes us weak because it is through this that God will make us strong enough to enter the gates of heaven.