My sermon this week had too much material. And my congregation needed another thread of the passage more than they needed this one. Did you know that preaching is actually much more personal than straight Biblical exegesis? If you’re hearing good sermons, it is because your preacher is paying an equal amount of attention to YOU and your community as they are to the text. That’s how preaching works. And my congregation didn’t need a sermon about beheading this Sunday morning, but SOMEBODY sure does. So, here: I saved you a plate of sermon leftovers.
I love the North Carolina Museum of Art. It is right down the road from my house, it is filled with beauty, and admission is free. I always visit the Rodin sculptures and the mummy’s coffin and this weird piece that I intentionally visit and then intentionally forget because it activates some mild form of trypophobia that I didn’t know I had until I encountered this painting hanging on a museum wall. And, if it’s on display, I always visit Kehinde Wiley’s “Judith and Holofernes.”
Well, “visit” is sort of an unnecessary verb, because this painting is TEN FEET TALL and you can’t avoid it if you’re in the museum and it is on display. It is incredible:
The story of Judith is from the Bible. Well, kind of. The book of Judith is deutero-canonical, and you won’t find it in Protestant-published Bibles but if you have a Catholic version, you can read for yourself.
Judith is a fierce widow who is angry that her fellow Israelites do not trust God enough to mount resistance against Holofernes, the Assyrian leader who is in charge of King Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign of world domination and is oppressing and killing the Israelites. Frustrated with their inaction, Judith takes matters into her own hands and travels with her maid to Holofernes’ military camp. She uses her charm and wiles to ingratiate herself to him and eventually scores an invite into his tent. When she arrives, she finds Holofernes drunk and out of it and takes the opportunity to chop off his head, killing the enemy leader and leaving the Assyrians in chaos, saving Israel. Judith carries Holofernes’ head back to Israel, and shows everyone what she has done. In their joy and relief, King Uzziah exclaims that she is “blessed among women.”
That “blessed among women” line is how the topic of beheading merits a place in the plot line of the Christmas story. There are two other women in scripture who get called “blessed among women.” Jael, whose story is parallel to Judith’s (read about her in Judges 4 & 5), also brutally kills an enemy leader (tent peg through the skull, y’all, which is, technically, one approved behavior for someone practicing “biblical womanhood.”).
And the other woman in scripture who is called “blessed among women” is – well, have you guessed, yet? Yep, it’s Mary, Mother of God. When Mary runs to her cousin Elizabeth’s home to find refuge while she grows the Son of God in her womb, Elizabeth sees her, feels her own baby rejoice in utero, and exclaims: “Blessed are you among women!”
Luke doesn’t choose his characters’ dialogue willy-nilly. He knew exactly what that title meant, exactly where it had shown up in scripture before, and exactly what readers would hear when Elizabeth proclaimed Mary to be among the ranks of those who are blessed among women. Mary herself is about to sing an exquisite praise hymn that riffs on ancient scripture and forwards themes of liberation and salvation from generations of her ancestors – she knew exactly what “blessed among women” meant, too.
Imagine reading that Mary is, like Judith and Jael, “blessed among women” and then writing a hymn lyric that calls her “meek and mild.” Imagine reading that Mary is only the third woman in generations worth of story and salvation to receive this title, knowing that the other two are warriors who heard the pain of their communities and killed the oppressors, imagine hearing Mary’s song that *literally* says that she’s aware she is about to join in the movement of God tossing powerful off their thrones and sending the fat, rich oppressors away…imagine knowing all that and then deciding that Mary is a sweet girl, important but ignorable, a minor character in this story.
Mary is explicitly compared to Jael, who killed the enemy by tricking him and impaling a tent peg through his skull. Elizabeth tells Mary that what she’s doing is akin to Judith beheading the oppressor of her people and bringing his head home on a stick. Mary is fierce. Mary is someone to be reckoned with. Mary is a warrior. She is like unto Kehinde Wiley’s image of Black Judith in a Givenchy gown dragging the head of her white woman captor back home to declare that all oppression will cease.
It is worth wondering about how birthing a baby is like beheading an enemy. It is worth wondering how Elizabeth finds ferocity in this nurturing of life instead of ending it. It is surely a point for us to ponder that Luke insists that “blessed among women” can include brutal murder AND tender care. And it is worth putting that question up against the words of Mary’s soon-to-be-born son, who commands that those of us who follow him love our enemies, do good to those that hate us, pray for those who curse us, do unto others (even the ones who hate and persecute and kill us) as we would want them to do unto us.
Still, the point remains. Wiley may as well have painted Mary up there in those ten feet of ferocious, warrior energy. That’s who Mary is, and who Mary was called to be and who Mary agreed to become when she said yes to God. Anybody calling her “meek” or “mild” hasn’t got a lick of sense.