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The Blessed Sacrament chapel in the cathedral of Valencia, Spain, is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Above the imposing statue of Mary are two smaller figures, perched high on a decorative arch. They are two women holding heads: Judith and Jael, fearless Old Testament women who symbolically did what the Immaculate Conception fully did centuries later: Through their conquest of the enemies of the Hebrew people, they represent Mary’s conquest of sin.
The Book of Judith spends three whole chapters speaking about the greatness of the army of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians. “These men will now lick up the face of the whole land,” the Israelites lament upon seeing them. This vast, immensely powerful army, led by the general Holofernes, is encamped around Judea when we meet Judith. In fact, they have isolated the Israelites, cutting off access to water, so that not even a man of Holofernes’ army should die. Instead of going into combat, they were planning to starve the Israelites to death.
This plan was underway and had lasted several days, such that the Israelite “women and young men fainted from thirst and fell down in the streets of the city … there was no strength left in them any longer.” The Israelites are thus ready to surrender themselves and the city.
But Judith goes to the high priest and tells him, “I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations to our descendants.” We hear echoes of the Virgin Mary.
After much prayer, she uses her various resources — both her own personal beauty and wit, as well as her riches — to reach the camp of Holofernes, contrive to be left alone with him, and, praying for sufficient strength, to chop off his head, pack it in a bag, and walk back home with it, without anyone of Holofernes’ army realizing.
When she’s safely home and has revealed her triumph, the high priest praises her, saying, “You are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth.” Again we hear echoes of Our Lady.
But another thing the high priest says is very telling, particularly in Advent. He says, “Your hope will never depart from the hearts of men, as they remember the power of God.”
Judith is above all a woman of hope. When she sees her countrymen dying of thirst, still she hopes. It is her hope that enables her to react, to make a plan, to prepare, to conquer. It is her hope that gives her energy, confidence, daring.
In a beautiful song of praise to God, she assures, “to those who fear thee thou wilt continue to show mercy … he who fears the Lord shall be great for ever.”
[The Aleteia community is joining the journey of an Old Testament pilgrim each day this Advent, as they lead us to the Christ Child in this holy season. Find the daily reflections here.]