Damien F. Mackey
The Greeks may have inadvertently replaced the most beautiful Jewish heroine, Judith of Bethulia, with their own legendary Helen, whose ‘face launched a thousand ships’, given, for instance, these striking similarities (Judith and The Iliad):
The beautiful woman praised by the elders at the city gates:
“When [the elders of Bethulia] saw [Judith] transformed in appearance and dressed differently, they were very greatly astounded at her beauty” (Judith 10:7).
“Now the elders of the people were sitting by the Skaian gates…. When they saw Helen coming … they spoke softly to each other with winged words: ‘No shame that the Trojans and the well-greaved Achaians should suffer agonies for long years over a woman like this – she is fearfully like the immortal goddesses to look at’” [The Iliad., pp. 44-45].
This theme of incredible beauty – plus the related view that “no shame” should be attached to the enemy on account of it – is picked up again a few verses later in the Book of Judith (v.19) when the Assyrian soldiers who accompany Judith and her maid to Holofernes “marvelled at [Judith’s] beauty and admired the Israelites, judging them by her … ‘Who can despise these people, who have women like this among them?’”
‘It is not wise to leave one of their men alive, for if we let them go they will be able to beguile the whole world!’ (Judith 10:19).
‘But even so, for all her beauty, let her go back in the ships, and not be left here a curse to us and our children’.
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The prophet Isaiah’s exclamation in 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!”, would be well applicable to Judith when emerging from her victory over the Assyrian commander-in-chief.
Concerning this Isaian text, pope John Paul II wrote of the Virgin Mary:
VISITATION IS PRELUDE TO JESUS’ MISSION Pope John Paul II
Like Elizabeth, the Church rejoices that Mary is the Mother of the Lord who brought her Son into the world and constantly co-operates in his saving mission. At the General Audience of Wednesday, 2 October, the Holy Father returned to his series of reflections on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Speaking of the Visitation, the Pope said: “Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, in fact, is a prelude to Jesus’ mission and, in co-operating from the beginning of her motherhood in the Son’s redeeming work, she becomes the model for those in the Church who set out to bring Christ’s light and joy to the people of every time and place”. Here is a translation of his catechesis, which was the 34th in the series on the Blessed Virgin and was given in Italian.1. In the Visitation episode, St Luke shows how the grace of the Incarnation, after filling Mary, brings salvation and joy to Elizabeth’s house. The Saviour of men, carried in his Mother’s womb, pours out the Holy Spirit, revealing himself from the very start of his coming into the world. In describing Mary’s departure for Judea, the Evangelist uses the verb “anístemi”, which means “to arise”, “to start moving”. Considering that this verb is used in the Gospels to indicate Jesus’ Resurrection (Mk 8:31; 9:9,31; Lk 24:7, 46) or physical actions that imply a spiritual effort (Lk 5:27-28; 15:18,20), we can suppose that Luke wishes to stress with this expression the vigorous zeal which led Mary, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to give the world its Saviour. Meeting with Elizabeth is a joyous saving event2. The Gospel text also reports that Mary made the journey “with haste” (Lk 1:39). Even the note “into the hill country” (Lk 1:39), in the Lucan context, appears to be much more than a simple topographical indication, since it calls to mind the messenger of good news described in the Book of Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion: ‘Your God reigns’” (Is 52:7).
Like St Paul, who recognizes the fulfilment of this prophetic text in the preaching of the Gospel (Rom 10:15), St Luke also seems to invite us to see Mary as the first “evangelist”, who spreads the “good news”, initiating the missionary journeys of her divine Son.
Lastly, the direction of the Blessed Virgin’s journey is particularly significant: it will be from Galilee to Judea, like Jesus’ missionary journey (cf. 9:51).
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, in fact, is a prelude to Jesus’ mission and, in cooperating from the beginning of her motherhood in the Son’s redeeming work, she becomes the model for those in the Church who set out to bring Christ’s light and joy to the people of every time and place.
- The meeting with Elizabeth has the character of a joyous saving event that goes beyond the spontaneous feelings of family sentiment. Where the embarrassment of disbelief seems to be expressed in Zechariah’s muteness, Mary bursts out with the joy of her quick and ready faith: “She entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:40).
St Luke relates that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb” (Lk 1:41). Mary’s greeting caused Elizabeth’s son to leap for joy: Jesus’ entrance into Elizabeth’s house, at Mary’s doing, brought the unborn prophet that gladness which the Old Testament foretells as a sign of the Messiah’s presence.
At Mary’s greeting, messianic joy comes over Elizabeth too and “filled with the Holy Spirit … she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Lk 1:41-42).
By a higher light, she understands Mary’s greatness: more than Jael and Judith, who prefigured her in the Old Testament, she is blessed among women because of the fruit of her womb, Jesus, the Messiah.
- Elizabeth’s exclamation, made “with a loud cry”, shows a true religious enthusiasm, which continues to be echoed on the lips of believers in the prayer “Hail Mary”, as the Church’s song of praise for the great works accomplished by the Most High in the Mother of his Son.
In proclaiming her “blessed among women”, Elizabeth points to Mary’s faith as the reason for her blessedness: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Mary’s greatness and joy arise from the fact the she is the one who believes.
In view of Mary’s excellence, Elizabeth also understands what an honour her visit is for her: “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk 1:43). With the expression “my Lord”, Elizabeth recognizes the royal, indeed messianic, dignity of Mary’s Son. In the Old Testament this expression was in fact used to address the king (cf. I Kgs 1:13,20,21 etc.) and to speak of the Messiah King (Ps I 10: 1). The angel had said of Jesus: “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Lk 1:32). “Filled with the Holy Spirit”, Elizabeth has the same insight. Later, the paschal glorification of Christ will reveal the sense in which this title is to be understood, that is, a transcendent sense (cf. Jn 20:28; Acts 2:34-36).
Mary is present in whole work of divine salvation
With her admiring exclamation, Elizabeth invites us to appreciate all that the Virgin’s presence brings as a gift to the life of every believer.
In the Visitation, the Virgin brings Christ to the Baptist’s mother, the Christ who pours out the Holy Spirit. This role of mediatrix is brought out by Elizabeth’s very words: “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my cars, the babe in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44). By the gift of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s presence serves as a prelude to Pentecost, confirming a co-operation which, having begun with the Incarnation, is destined to be expressed in the whole work of divine salvation.
Taken from: L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English9 October 1996, page 11L’Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
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Catholics have long recognised Judith as an ancient type of the Virgin Mary.