(Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato: Virgin Mary.)
As a recent convert to Roman Catholicism from Protestant Christianity, I have become enamored with some distinctly Catholic ideas.
First, I find the Catholic approach to reading the Bible highly stimulating. Unlike certain popular forms of evangelical Protestant Christianity, Catholicism believes that oftentimes, it is the non-literal, allegorical (“spiritual”) meaning of the Bible that is most important. In fact, some influential Christian authors like Origen Adamantius of Alexandria (circa 185-254 C. E.) go so far as to say that sometimes the literal meaning of a given biblical text is positively false, a “scandal” meant to awaken the reader to the underlying “spiritual” meaning of the text. There is evidence that even the authors of the New Testament read and interpreted the Old Testament with respect to its non-literal meanings.
Second, I have come to have a greater appreciation for Saint Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Since according to Catholic orthodoxy, Jesus was fully human and fully God, Mary can even justly be called “the Mother of God”. Such a title inevitably bequeathed to her great honor among Christians. Indeed, in the Gospel According to St Luke, Mary herself claims that, “from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
Third, I now am obliged to accept as Sacred Scripture certain books that were omitted from the Canon of Scripture by Protestants, including Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Maccabees, and some other books, as well. Combining these three principles that are novel to my spiritual life, I have been able to couple the Catholic tradition of reading the Bible with special attention to hidden, non-literal meanings to an appreciation for the role of St Mary in the life of Jesus. In doing so, I have encountered a school of thought that attempts to find in the Old Testament — including the books of the Bible I formerly considered null on account of my past religious persuasion — signs and images that symbolically point to Mary. The Book of Judith has been traditionally understood to contain precisely such portraits that were realized historically in Mary.
One of the more fascinating parallels between the female protagonist Judith (for whom the book is named) and St Mary is that of being preserved from defilement. Judith, an especially attractive widow, sneaks into the encampment of Israel’s enemies, wins the favor of the enemy general Holofernes, and eventually succeeds in being alone in a tent with him. Ultimately, Judith is able to behead Holofernes while he is lying on his bed in a drunken stupor. Thanks to God’s providential wisdom, Judith was able to kill Holofernes without ever having been sexually or otherwise physically molested by him, even though he lusted after her on account of her remarkable beauty and was briefly alone with her. Later in the book, Judith considers this to have been a fitting outcome of her story.
This story results in a moving allegory of St Mary. In the Roman Catholic Church, it is a dogma that Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb “immaculately”, meaning that she was preserved from original sin in her conception. Whereas the sin of our first parents (known in Scripture by the names “Adam” and “Eve”) resulted in the loss of the primordial “state of grace” for all of their descendants (which is to say, all of the human race), Mary was, by a special act of Christ’s divine grace, preserved from inheriting the privation of the original state of grace that is known theologically as “original sin”. (Note that original sin is not to be understood as an “original guilt”, whereby even an infant “deserves” to be punished for sin. Original sin is more akin to a medical defect that one inherits from one’s parents than to a punishment that one might unjustly receive for the sins of someone else.) Just as it was fitting for Judith to be preserved from sexual mistreatment from Holofernes in the process of slaying him, so also according to Catholicism was it fitting for St Mary to be preserved from the stain of original sin (a mistreatment inflicted upon the human race ultimately by the Devil) in the process of her conception, which culminated in her destiny to become the Mother of Jesus, who by his death and resurrection would vanquish the Devil. As Judith was kept safe (immaculate) from sexual intercourse with her enemy, so also was Mary kept immaculate from original sin due to the perversion that the Devil inflicted upon the human race through the sin of our first parents.
If it is true that the Old Testament points vaguely to spiritual realities fulfilled historically in the life of Jesus, then Judith might plausibly be read as an allegory in support of the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of St Mary. The God of Israel who preserved Judith from being tainted by Holofernes also preserved the Mother of our Lord from being tainted by the Devil.