Christmas is approaching. This is a good time for a simple meditation on the many women of God who prefigured the perfection of the Mother of the Redeemer. This meditation shows how the Old Testament gradually reveals the many qualities of the woman mentioned in Genesis 3:15. Both the Messiah and his Mother were a mystery for many, many centuries. That mystery was finally unveiled the first Christmas in Bethlehem. The young maiden announced in the prophecy of Isaiah delivered the Blessed Son, Emmanuel, God with us.
The Bible relates the story of the Virgin Mary in both the Old and the New Testament. In the Old Testament we read about Our Blessed Mother in the prophecies and prophetic models used by God to teach us about her qualities.
Genesis 3, 15 — «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.»
In Genesis 3, 15 we find the first prophecy about Mary. She is the one who will inflict a mortal wound on the head of the original serpent. When the Hebrew scholars of ancient times translated this verse into the Greek language, they used the word gunai (woman, lady). She is the one who is going to bring the divine punishment upon the father of the “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12, 34) those whom Jesus refers to as “sons of your father, the Devil” (John 8, 44). In this small verse we find the first sign of the Gospel’s promise. The seed of the woman is also the seed of Abraham, the father of all the faithful. That seed is Christ, who comes to the world through Mary. This is explained by Saint Paul in Galatians 3, 16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant. It does not say, ‘And to descendants,’ as referring to many, but as referring to one, ‘And to your descendant,’ who is Christ.”
The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed or progeny of the original serpent continues until the time of the end as it is shown in Saint John’s vision of the Apocalypse, in Revelation 11, 19 to 12, 6.
Isaiah 7, 10-14 — «Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.»
God reiterates that He will bring a Messiah revealing for the first time that he will be the son of a young maiden: “the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” The word used here for virgin is almah (a maiden or young woman). The name Immanuel means “God with us”. Isaiah reveals more about this son of the virgin.
Isaiah 11, 1-5 — «But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide. But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.»
This prophecy confirms that a maiden from the tribe of Judah, and from the family of David will give birth to the promised Messiah. The Jesse mentioned here is the father of King David, who is from the tribe of Judah. Early in history, Jacob had prophesied that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49, 10). Here Isaiah begins to reveal the role of the mother of the Messiah. In the New Testament, the final connection is made when we read how it was fulfilled in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 1, 18-25 — «Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”»
A contemporary of Isaiah also mentions the mother of the Messiah:
Micah 5, 1-2 — «But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his brethren shall return to the children of Israel.»
Also the prophet Jeremiah seems to mention the mother of the Messiah in this mysterious verse:
Jeremiah 31, 22 — «How long will you continue to stray, rebellious daughter? The LORD has created a new thing upon the earth: the woman must encompass the man with devotion.»
Here the “rebellious daughter” is Israel. The phrase seems to suggest that God is about to do something to cure the constant rebellions of His people. Saint Jerome explains this verse as a prophetic model of the virgin birth of Christ. The “new thing” that God is creating is Mary of Nazareth who will have the mission to conceive a perfect and complete man, not stained by original sin.
There are other prophetic types of Mary, like Sara, Hannah, Deborah, Jael, Judith, and Esther among others.
Sarah is the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac and the grandmother of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. There are many parallels between Sarah and Mary of Nazareth. Like Mary she goes into Egypt for a while (Genesis 12, 10-20). She did not have any children (Genesis 16, 1) and her miraculous pregnancy was announced by a celestial messenger (Genesis 18, 10). She asks the angel a question very similar to the question asked by Mary:
Luke 1, 34 — «And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I know no man?”»
Genesis 18, 13 — «[…] ‘Shall I really bear a child, old as I am?’»
Both Sarah and Mary live at momentous times in history, when God is establishing a new covenant for His people.
Genesis 17, 2 — «Between you and me I will establish my covenant, and I will multiply you exceedingly.”»
Luke 1, 30-33 — «Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, 11 and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”»
In ancient times children were the most worthy treasure of a family. It was considered a blessing from God to have many children. When a woman could not have children, she had to bear the shame of being barren. In many cases, the husband would add another woman to the household making the life of the original wife very difficult. That was the case of Hannah the wife of Elkanah, a man from the tribe of Ephraim. This faithful woman was barren but that did not stop her from praying to God for offspring.
But one year, at the time of the great religious festival at Shiloh, Hannah approached the Tabernacle and earnestly prayed to God for a child. She prays silently as the priest Eli, observes her from a distance. Eli notices that Hannah is in great distress and weeps bitterly as she prays. Eli concludes wrongly that she has been drinking too much wine during the celebration. He rebukes her for being drunk in the house of God. Let us remember that Mary, along with other Christians gathered in the upper room, were also accused of being drunk after celebrating the Pentecost. It happened the day when the Church received the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2, 1-13).
1 Samuel 1, 12-17 — «As she remained long at prayer before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth, for Hannah was praying silently; though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli, thinking her drunk, said to her, “How long will you make a drunken show of yourself? Sober up from your wine!” “It isn’t that, my lord,” Hannah answered. “I am an unhappy woman. I have had neither wine nor liquor; I was only pouring out my troubles to the LORD. Do not think your handmaid a ne’er-do-well; my prayer has been prompted by my deep sorrow and misery.” Eli said, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”»
After receiving the blessing of Eli, Hannah faithfully believes that God will grant her prayer. She promises God that if He gave her a son, she will consecrate him to the Lord to serve Him all his life. The answer to her prayer and vow was Samuel, the great prophet-priest of Israel who was born to her that year. Hannah fulfilled her promised and five years later she took Samuel to be raised by Eli, the priest of God in that place.
Like Mary, Hannah was the mother of a great prophet whom she consecrated from infancy to the service of God. (compare 1 Samuel 1, 24 with Matthew 2, 22-40)
The song of Hannah, registered in the second chapter of 1 Samuel was most likely the inspiration for Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1, 46-55).
1 Samuel 2, 1-10 — «and as she worshiped the LORD, she said: “My heart exults in the LORD, my horn is exalted in my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the LORD; there in no Rock like our God. “Speak boastfully no longer, nor let arrogance issue from your mouths. For an all-knowing God is the LORD, a God who judges deeds. The bows of the mighty are broken, while the tottering gird on strength. The well-fed hire themselves out for bread, while the hungry batten on spoil. The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes. “The LORD puts to death and gives life; he casts down to the nether world; he raises up again. The LORD makes poor and makes rich, he humbles, he also exalts. He raises the needy from the dust; from the ash heap he lifts up the poor, To seat them with nobles and make a glorious throne their heritage. He gives to the vower his vow, and blesses the sleep of the just. “For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’S, and he has set the world upon them. He will guard the footsteps of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall perish in the darkness. For not by strength does man prevail; the LORD’S foes shall be shattered. The Most High in heaven thunders; The LORD judges the ends of the earth, Now may he give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed!”»
Deborah and Jael
Deborah is a model of wisdom, judging Israel from a place situated between Ramah and Lapidoth (Judges 4, 4). At a time when the Israelites were oppressed by the Canaanites she summoned the tribes of Zebulon and Nephtali to fight Sissera, the Canaanite commander. She prophesized that the mighty oppressor was going to be delivered into the hands of a woman. This is a prophetic model of Mary, who is going to fulfill the prophecy of Genesis 3, 15 by crushing the head of Satan, the original serpent. The woman chosen by God to end the life of Sissera is Jael. Both Deborah and Jael are prophetic types of Mary.
Judges 4, 17-21 — «Sissera, in the meantime, had fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of the Kenite Heber, since Jabin, king of Hazor, and the family of the Kenite Heber were at peace with one another. Jael went out to meet Sissera and said to him, “Come in, my lord, come in with me; do not be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink. I am thirsty.” But she opened a jug of milk for him to drink, and then covered him over. “Stand at the entrance of the tent,” he said to her. “If anyone comes and asks, ‘Is there someone here?’ say, ‘No!’“ Instead Jael, wife of Heber, got a tent peg and took a mallet in her hand. While Sissera was sound asleep, she stealthily approached him and drove the peg through his temple down into the ground, so that he perished in death.»
The Book of Judith tells us how God delivered the Jewish people through Judith a brave woman who fears God. Judith’s name means “Jewess”. She exemplifies prophetically Mary’s unfailing trust in God. (Luke 1, 38-37). Like Mary, she intercedes before God for the salvation of His people.
Judith 9, 5-14 — «“O God, my God, hear me also, a widow. It is you who were the author of those events and of what preceded and followed them. The present, also, and the future you have planned. Whatever you devise comes into being; the things you decide on come forward and say, ‘Here we are!’ All your ways are in readiness, and your judgment is made with foreknowledge. “Here are the Assyrians, a vast force, priding themselves on horse and rider, boasting of the power of their infantry, trusting in shield and spear, bow and sling. They do not know that”. ‘You, the Lord, crush warfare; Lord is your name. Shatter their strength in your might, and crush their force in your wrath; for they have resolved to profane your sanctuary, to defile the tent where your glorious name resides, and to overthrow with iron the horns of your altar. See their pride, and send forth your wrath upon their heads. Give me, a widow, the strong hand to execute my plan. With the guile of my lips, smite the slave together with the ruler, the ruler together with his servant; crush their pride by the hand of a woman. “Your strength is not in numbers, nor does your power depend upon stalwart men; but you are the God of the lowly, the helper of the oppressed, the supporter of the weak, the protector of the forsaken, the savior of those without hope. “Please, please, God of my forefather, God of the heritage of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all you have created, hear my prayer! Let my guileful speech bring wound and wale on those who have planned dire things against your covenant, your holy temple, Mount Zion, and the homes your children have inherited. Let your whole nation and all the tribes know clearly that you are the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who protects the people of Israel but you alone.”»
Queen Esther is one of the most beautiful prophetic types of Our Blessed Mother. She is a model of trust in God and in the power of prayer and fasting. When the enemies of God’s people device an evil plan to exterminate them, she intercedes for them before the king, risking her life in the process. She is a model of Mary, the courageous Queen of God’s People.
Esther 8, 4-6 — «The king stretched forth the golden scepter to Esther. So she rose and, standing in his presence, said: “If it pleases your majesty and seems proper to you, and if I have found favor with you and you love me, let a document be issued to revoke the letters which that schemer Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, wrote for the destruction of the Jews in all the royal provinces. For how can I witness the evil that is to befall my people, and how can I behold the destruction of my race?”»
The theme of Mary as the New Eve is prefigured in this story. In the ancient court of King Ahasuerus of Persia Queen Vashti is banished from the court because of her disobedience. Four years later, King Ahasuerus selects Esther for his wife and queen because she is beautiful and intelligent.
Later on some enemies of the Jews plot to destroy all the Jews in the empire. The only one who can save them from destruction is Esther but she cannot talk to King Ahasuerus unless she has been called. Anyone appearing before the King uninvited is punished with death. Esther decides to save her people. So she and her maidservants along with all the Jews of Persia fast and pray for three days. At the end of the three days Esther enters the King’s court unannounced, to petition for her people. This reminds us of the role of Mary as intercessor for the people of God. That intercession is made both through her prayers and sorrows, just like Esther prayed and fasted.
In the end, through the intervention of Queen Esther, the Jews are saved and their enemies are vanquished. That is why the Jewish people celebrate the feast of Purim. Originally the fast was observed by Esther and the entire people of Israel on the 14th, 15th and 16th of Nisan, in what would roughly correspond to the three days of Christ’s Passion. In that we observe a parallel: just like the Jews defeated their enemies in ancient Persia, so Jesus defeated the enemy of all mankind on the Cross on Nissan 14th, that is Good Friday.
Esther is presented to us in the Bible as a woman of deep faith and courage who loves his people, and is willing to risk her life for those she loves. She is an instrument of salvation provided by God to save and protect His people. In the same way Mary is God’s instrument of salvation. Through her we have received Our Lord. Like Esther, she is a permanent intercessor before the throne of God for the good of all her beloved children.
Devotion to the Virgin Mary is an essential part of being Catholic. In other Christian ecclesial groups some may have an inclination not to talk too much about the Mother of God. The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, made a very good analysis of that problem in his prologue to Mere Christianity:
“… there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic. And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs on this subject call forth feelings which go down to the very roots of all Monotheism whatever. To radical Protestants it seems that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled: that Polytheism is risen again. Hence it is hard so to dissent from them that you will not appear something worse than a heretic—an idolater, a Pagan…”
Yet, merely thinking about Mary can prove beneficial for Catholics and other Christians as well. She was the first disciple of Christ, the very first one who believed in Him. Through Scripture she is still telling us “Do Whatever He tells you.” (John 2, 5) That is certainly good advice: if we do whatever Jesus tells us, we will have the honor of being called His friends (John 15, 14). Jesus trusted John, the beloved disciple, to the care of Mary (John 19, 26). There is no reason that He would not do the same with all the disciples He loves. We can think of Mary as the first disciple of Jesus and profit from her example by reading those passages of Holy Scripture that speak about her life.
When we talk to others about Christ we can point at Mary as a good example of a Christian life well lived. We are to deliver Christ to the world by declaring the Good News of salvation. Mary is the best model of that because through her the Word of God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1, 14).
To cure the world of the evil of selfishness, it would be great if more and more people would think of Mary and her generous surrender to the will of God. Mary patiently suffered poverty, slander, exile and shame for our sake, so we could have salvation in Jesus. Before the Great Sacrifice on the Cross, Mary sacrificed all she had for our benefit as well. We should certainly show our gratitude by meditating on her exemplary life.
We should strive to imitate her. We can learn of her extraordinary virtues in Scripture, and follow her example of simplicity and obedience. No one will ever receive a greater honor from God than having Him dwell as a Son, as he did in Mary’s own body. At the end of time, when all the saints are counted and meet in the Heaven to praise God: who will be like Mary who had the privilege of being the mother of the Redeemer?
Mary leads us to Jesus through her perfect example. Let us listen carefully to all she says. Let us imitate her in all we do.