During Advent, we hear more about the Mother of God than any other woman. This should come as no surprise. As we joyfully prepare for Christmas, we have no better model than the Mother of God herself. We are meant to join our hearts to hers and to ponder the deep love that she felt for our Lord, her Son, and we are meant to likewise rejoice. In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38), we hear the story of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to proclaim the Immaculate Conception, and when Mary willingly said yes to this awesome burden. This is a predictable reading; one which we expect to hear multiple times during the Advent season as we attempt to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming.
What we don’t expect during Advent, however, is to hear from the Book of Judith. In fact, we rarely expect to hear from the Book of Judith at all during the liturgical year. It is a fairly obscure book of the Bible, yet many know its story through the numerous portraits that were made of its heroine during the Renaissance by the likes of Caravaggio and Gentileschi. Judith was a beautiful widow from the Israelite city of Bethulia known for her wisdom and deep piety.Three years after her husband’s death, Judith’s city was brutally besieged by the Assyrians and their general Holofernes, and the leaders of her people lost hope. Just as the elders were ready to surrender the city, Judith rose up and reminded the Bethulians to trust in God. That night, she set out with her maid for the Assyrian camp, where she beheaded Holofernes in his sleep (Judith 7-13).
Today’s responsorial psalm (Judith 13:18-19) comes from the passage in which Judith has returned to her city holding the bloodied head of the enemy leader in her hands. The people bow down before her and Uzziah, their king, says to Judith:
“Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the leader of our enemies.”
Then our lector moves on to read the Annunciation from Luke. What are we to make of this?
Judith and Mary are more alike than one might initially think, and the quotation above should remind us of this. Uzziah’s praise of Judith is very similar to Gabriel’s salutation to Mary (Luke1:28-30). Both women are in an ambiguous social situation when we first meet them in the Bible. Mary, of course, was a betrothed virgin, and Judith was a childless widow. They were both women of Israel who were known for their beauty and deep piety. What is most important, though, is that they willingly took on enormously difficult tasks, which ultimately saved their people, either physically or spiritually, because they were commissioned by God.
During Advent, we think of Mary’s joyful and loving acceptance of God’s request. Still, we need to remember how terrifying this ordeal must have initially seemed to her. We hear, in fact, in today’s Gospel that Mary was “greatly troubled” when the Angel came to her (Luke1:29). Like Judith, Mary faced enormous risk when she said yes to God’s call.If people knew that she had conceived outside of marriage, she would have surely been stoned to death. Likewise, Judith faced rape at the hands of Holofernes and his soldiers (Judith 12:12) when she entered their camp, and if she was caught with the general’s head, worse. Regardless, both women heeded God’s call.
During Advent, we are not simply called to be cheerful. There is more to this season than singing our favorite hymns and setting up our manger set. It is also a time to deeply ponder what God is calling us to, no matter the scale. While we will most likely not be called to save our city during a time of war or to bear God’s son, the Father will no doubt ask us to do things which we will find difficult. We should use this season as a time for reflection and prayer so that we may become more like Judith and Mary in our conviction to follow God, so that when His call does come, we are ready to heed it.
Sam Hand ’20 is a Classical Civilizations concentrator in Winthrop.