On the great Solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord, we celebrate not only the conception of the Second Person of the Trinity, but also Mary’s Fiat — her “yes” to the will of God in her life. In addition, Mary’s Fiat also delivered a definitive and fatal blow to the devil, often depicted in art and statuary by Mary standing on the head of the serpent. While Protestants may dispute Mary’s influential role in salvation history, a brief investigation of Scripture certainly reveals that the Evangelist Luke intended to depict Our Lady as a conqueror over Satan at the Annunciation.
The significance of the Annunciation can be traced back firstly to Genesis 3:15, a Scripture passage so significant that it has its own name — the Protoevangelion. Much like the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil that sings, “O Happy Fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer,” the Protoevangelion, directly following the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, announces God’s “First Good News” of salvation from sin and bondage to the devil. In keeping with the context of Genesis 3, Christ as the New Adam reverses the sin of disobedience committed by the first Adam. This event may be properly located at the Agony in the Garden, when Jesus makes the perfect prayer of obedience: “Not my will but yours be done.” As is brilliantly portrayed in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, having overcome the temptations of the devil through His prayer of obedience, Christ rises from His prayer and stomps on an insidious representation of the devil in the form of a serpent.
The interpretation of this passage does not need to be isolated to Christ. In fact, the Douay Rheims and New Jerusalem Bibles offer the Protoevangelion with a feminine pronoun: “she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” This would point to Mary as the New Eve complementing, not replacing, Christ as the New Adam. This is exactly the sense in which Luke understands the passage.
To illustrate the connection between the Protoevangelion and the Annunciation, we need to look at a couple of other examples of heroic women in the Old Testament. In Judges 4, Deborah is inspired by the Lord to send an army against her people’s Canaanites oppressors. True to the Lord’s word, the Canaanites are routed, but the enemy general, Sisera, escapes on foot and arrives at the tent of a certain woman named Jael. Jael invites him in, and he asks for a drink of water while in hiding. Jael offers him warm milk instead, which has its naturally sedative effect. While Sisera is “sound asleep,” Jael takes a mallet and drives a tent stake through Sisera’s temples and into the ground.
The interpretative key follows in the Canticle of Deborah as she sings in praise of the victory over the Canaanites: “Blessed among women be Jael, blessed among tent-dwelling women[.] … She hammered Sisera, crushed his head; she smashed, stove in his temple” (Judges 5:24–26). You gotta love the Old Testament.
A similar sequence of events plays out in the book of Judith. An Assyrian army, commanded by Holofernes, lays siege to a Jewish town that lies in the path to Jerusalem. After 34 days, the people are ready to surrender, so Judith takes matters into her own hands. Judith exits the city, enters the enemy camp, and proceeds to seduce Holofernes. Taken by her beauty, Holofernes invites Judith to a banquet where he drinks “a great quantity of wine, more than he had ever drunk on one single day in his life.” Holofernes passes out, and after everyone leaves, Judith beheads him with his own sword, puts his head in her knapsack, and returns to the city with her trophy. The people celebrate their liberation by the hands of Judith, and Uzziah, the magistrate of the city, proclaims of her, “Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all women on earth … who guided your blow at the head of the chief of our enemies” (Judith 13:18).
The significance of these two passages is in the connection between Mary’s action at the Annunciation with the victories of these two Old Testament heroines. Consider that in Luke 1:38, Mary reverses the disobedience of Eve with her proclamation, “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” Just four verses later (1:42), Elizabeth declares of Mary, “Most blessed are you among women and blessed in the fruit of your womb,” and again in verse 45, “[b]lessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Mary affirms Elizabeth’s appellation in the Magnificat immediately thereafter: “From now on all generations will call me Blessed” (1:48).
This threefold declaration of Mary’s “blessed”-ness directs the reader’s attention back to Jael and Judith and the events that preceded their being called “blessed.” A glance at a Bible concordance will reveal that the only two women in all of Scripture who receive the distinction of being called “blessed,” other than Mary, are Jael and Judith. Considering that Luke’s gospel shows a great affinity for Old Testament references, it would be silly to assume that the evangelist was ignorant of the implications of Mary being called “blessed.”
If Mary’s blessedness corresponds to that of Jael and Judith, then there must be congruity between the actions that resulted in their being called “blessed.” Whereas Jael’s and Judith’s head shots were to human enemies, Mary’s head strike was to a spiritual enemy, the ancient Enemy, the commander of all things evil and unholy. By saying “yes” to the will of God, Mary as the New Eve corrects the disobedience of the first Eve that led to the Fall and does indeed deliver a fatal blow to the devil by paving the way for the Word to be made flesh and for our ultimate redemption.
Luke’s demonstration of the Annunciation as the fulfillment of the Protoevangelion merely affirms for us as Catholics Mary’s instrumental role in salvation history and provides supporting evidence for the validity of such titles as Mediatrix of All Graces. For Protestants, to whom this type of exegesis would be particularly appealing, there should be some awakening to the necessity for devotion to the Mother of God.
With the seemingly endless flow of negative news coming out of Church from the top down, the message of hope that the Annunciation offers today is that the victory is already won. The devil’s influence in the world is ubiquitous, but he has already been dealt his fatal blow. We in the Church Militant are witnessing his death throes as he strives to take as many souls with him as he can. We anxiously await his expiration. Until such time, we should celebrate the great victory won by Our Lady over the enemy and hope in the triumph in which we will share when our pilgrimage in this world is complete.
Shane Ball earned a B.A. in political science from Loyola University in Maryland and completed graduate studies in theology at both Franciscan University in Steubenville and the Pontifical College of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. He was also a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum for over two years, where he earned a B.Phil., completing his thesis on St. Thomas’s distinction between essence and existence. Shane is married with children and teaches theology in the Diocese of Columbus.