Advent is About Mary
by Fr. Frederick Edlefsen
“Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary’s womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ From his conception, Christ’s humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God ‘gives him the Spirit without measure.’ From his fullness as the head of redeemed humanity ‘we have all received, grace upon grace.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 504)
Someone stole a “forbidden fruit” back when all was still paradise. A primeval disaster cursed history. The lesson is clear: beware of Satan’s machinations. Yet, don’t underestimate God’s goodness and the grace of humility. In the wake of Adam and Eve’s sin, Genesis prophesies hope. God confronts the first couple in their shame. Then, he addresses the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15). God prophesies combat between Dark and Light. But the Woman is the bearer of Light – and of Hope.
The conflict between the Woman and the serpent is woven throughout Scripture, starting with Moses, in Israel’s battle with her enemies. For example, consider the conflict between Sisera and Barak in the Book of Judges. Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army (Israel’s enemy), was routed by Barak (a judge of Israel) and his army. As defeat became imminent, Sisera fled and took refuge in the tent of Heber the Kenite, someone with whom he had (so far) been at peace. Heber’s wife, Jael, was alone in the tent when Sisera arrived. Feigning to offer him refuge and hospitality, Jael fed Sisera some milk, covered him with a blanket, and put him to sleep. Then, Jael nailed a tent peg through his brain with a mallet (Judges 4: 12-23). Gruesome? Yes. Nonetheless, Sisera is a “type” of Satan (the snake) and Jael is a “type” of the Virgin Mary (the Woman). “I will put enmity between you and the woman.”
In another Old Testament tale, The Book of Judith, take note of the two main characters. First, there’s Judith – a Hebrew woman who personifies the people of Israel who are captives in Babylon. Secondly, there is Holofernes – a lustful Babylonian general and enemy of Israel who personifies Satan. In the tale, Judith beheads a drunk Holofernes, who was posturing to seduce her. No fool she was when, as they were alone (so he thought) in his tent’s bedchamber, Judith “grasped the hair of his head” and “struck his neck twice and cut off his head” with Holofernes’ own sword. She handed Holofernes’ head to her maid who “put it in her food bag.” “Then the two went out together for prayer as was their custom” (Judith 13:4-24). Not exactly a bedtime story. As in the tale of Sisera and Jael, Holofernes is a “type” of Satan, and Judith is a “type” of the Virgin Mary. “I will put enmity between you and the woman.” Like that line from Genesis, the tales of Jael and Judith foretell the Woman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation (12:1-12:6).
“A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne” (Revelation 12:1-6).
The Woman completes St. Michael’s victory of Light over Darkness (Genesis 1:3-5): “Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it” (Revelation 12:7-9). The great Old Testament love song – The Song of Songs – foretells the Woman’s apocalyptic victory: “Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, beautiful as the white moon, pure as the blazing sun, fearsome as celestial visions” (Songs 6:10)?
The Woman Crowned with Twelve Stars
In the Book of Revelation, the Woman is revealed as the fulfillment of the Ark of Covenant. St. John’s apparition of the Ark of the Covenant (Revelation 11:19) reveals the apocalyptic meaning of the Annunciation, the Visitation and Christ’s virgin birth. It’s all prelude to two other apparitions foretelling the Church’s battle with Satan for the rest of history: the Woman and the dragon (Revelation 12). The “great sign” that “appeared in the sky” was the triumphant Woman, whom the angel Gabriel called “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled: “The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14). The Woman “crowned with stars” personifies the People of God (like Jael and Judith), the Catholic Church and the Heavenly Jerusalem (the Bride). The prophets’ ideal Zion is fulfilled in the Virgin Mary, and again in the New Jerusalem.
So what are the twelve stars about? “Joseph dreamed another dream, and told it to his brothers and said, ‘Behold, I have dreamed another dream; and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me’” (Genesis 37:9). The sun, the moon and eleven stars are Joseph’s father, the mother and eleven siblings. That is to say, the twelve stars around the head of the Woman of the Apocalypse represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles, upon which the Church is built. All created light in the cosmos – sun, moon, stars – will give way to the Light born from the Woman who, with the angels, illuminates the New Creation. “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). “Arise! Shine, for your light has come, the glory of the LORD has dawned upon you… No longer shall the sun be your light by day, nor shall the brightness of the moon give you light by night; rather, the LORD will be your light forever, your God will be your glory. No longer will your sun set, or your moon wane; for the LORD will be your light forever and the days of your grieving will be over” (Isaiah 60:1, 19-20). “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5)
The Woman’s Birth Pangs
“Before she is in labor, she gives birth; before her pangs come upon her, she delivers a male child. Who ever heard of such a thing, or who ever saw the like? Can a land be brought forth in one day, or a nation be born in a single moment? Yet Zion was scarcely in labor when she bore her children. ‘Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth and yet not let her child be born?’ says the LORD. ‘Or shall I who bring to birth yet close her womb?’ says your God” (Isaiah 66:7-9).
“She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth” (Revelation 12:2). Because Mary had no original sin, the virgin birth of Jesus wasn’t painful. So, if the Woman of Apocalypse is Mary, then why did St. John say she “wails aloud in pain” giving birth? At the Annunciation and the Nativity, Mary became the “Mother of God.” But on Good Friday, Mary became the “Mother of the Church.” “Behold your Mother,” said the crucified Jesus to St. John the Apostle (John 19:27). In this vein, Mary – who personifies the Church – “wails aloud in pain,” giving birth to God’s children until the End of Time. The Church “wails aloud in pain” throughout history, giving virgin birth to saints from the womb of the baptismal font. Moreover, this is the prophetic cause of the Christian vocation of celibacy, by which the Church gives “virgin birth” to God’s children and purifies hearts, as foretold in the Beatitudes.
St. John wrote: “When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:21-22). This echoes an ancient prophecy: “The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14). Fast forward to the Apocalypse: “She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne” (Revelation 12:5). Isaiah foretold that the People of God will give birth to a holy and numerous world in a foreordained time of grace: “Your people will all be just; for all time they will possess the land; they are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. The least one shall become a clan, the smallest, a mighty nation; I, the LORD, will swiftly accomplish these things when the time comes” (Isaiah 60:21-22).
The progeny of Israel shall be blessed: “Their offspring shall be renowned among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them: ‘They are offspring the LORD has blessed’” (Isaiah 61:9). “They shall not toil in vain, nor beget children for sudden destruction; for they shall be a people blessed by the LORD and their descendants with them” (Isaiah 65:23). Isaiah foretold what St. John saw in his apocalyptic vision: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.’ The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Revelation 21:1-5). This is the hope – and expectation – of Advent. Mary is expecting to give virgin birth to not only a Savior, but to a Christian people – and to a New World of peace and beauty through the virgin font of baptism.